Christmas Parties - Employment issues

The Christmas party is an event which all staff look forward to.  It's a chance to relax and enjoy colleagues' company, to reward employees for the year past and to look forward to the year to come.  Whilst most parties pass with no more concern than the dodgy dance moves, organisers should bear in mind some simple steps to take to help the event pass without incident and reduced risk.

Harassment

Employment law applies even where the party is held out with the workplace and after hours.  Employers can be held vicariously liable for the acts of their employees. Too much alcohol or high spirits can lead to lowered standards of conduct, which may result in lewd comments and unwanted behaviour, especially if festive mistletoe appears.  There's no harm and indeed every benefit in employers reminding employees of the need to behave and treat each other with respect.  An up to date harassment policy, which is brought to the attention of all staff, will also help to reduce the risk of harassment occurring.

Additionally, employers should deal with any complaints received and should do so promptly.

Acceptable Standards of Behaviour

Employers should remind employees that acceptable standards of behaviour are required at the event – for example, avoid excessive alcohol consumption – and also highlighting the fact that disciplinary sanctions may follow if any employees are guilty of inappropriate behaviour.

Employees should be reminded prior to the party that, although they are out with the office, they are still representing the organisation, and so any behaviour that could damage the organisation's reputation will be dealt with accordingly.

Fighting

Recent case law has highlighted that employers can fairly dismiss employees for fighting at a Christmas party.  In one case, an employment tribunal held that it was reasonable for the employer to dismiss an employee for punching a colleague in the face during the walk home from the Christmas party.  The employee in question argued that this was not misconduct because it happened outside the course of employment.  The tribunal however held that the incident following the Christmas party was sufficiently closely connected to work, as it was the party itself that created the situation resulting in the incident, i.e. the walk home.

Similarly, an employee was dismissed following a "tussle" which, after the event, both employees involved played down and dismissed as a "play fight" and "wrestling match".  This dismissal was also held to be reasonable – it was irrelevant that the employees subsequently attempted to play down the incident and the employer was entitled to treat fighting with a colleague as "a matter of the utmost seriousness".

These decisions highlight the importance of employers reminding their employees of acceptable standards of conduct out with the workplace and after hours.  Otherwise, employees may not be aware that behaviour which they would never dream of engaging in during working hours and in the workplace will be treated the same if it occurs at work social events.

Discrimination

Arrangements for the party should be non discriminatory.  The venue must have suitable access for disabled staff.  If partners are to be invited, then employers should ensure this includes staff with same sex partners.

Staff of different religions should be considered.  Although the Christmas party is traditionally associated with the festive season, those who follow a religion other than Christianity must not be excluded.  At the same time however, it should be remembered that some employees of other religions may not want to participate, and so they should not be pressurised into attending.  Further, employees whose religion forbids alcohol consumption should not be forgotten about – ensure that soft drinks are provided as well as alcohol.

Absence

Where the Christmas party takes place on a week night, there is always the possibility that employees will "pull a sickie" the next day as a result of over-exuberance.  It may be an idea to warn staff in advance that unauthorised absence the day after the Christmas party may result in disciplinary action.  Where an employer has a suspicion that the real reason for the absence is too much alcohol the night before, they must ensure this is in fact the case before taking any action.  Failure to do so could potentially result in unsafe disciplinary action.

Enjoy!

All Christmas and festive events take planning.  These tips can be remembered and added to steps to take to help the event to be a success for all.