The inappropriate and drunk actions of the office Lothario is not however the only concern at these events.
It is also discriminatory behaviour and harassment (unwanted conduct on the grounds of race, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief, and age) that should be a concern. For example, the inappropriate Secret Santa gift of lingerie meant to titillate but which actually publically humiliate.
Parties are work events
Even though a Christmas party may be offsite or out of normal hours, it is still a work event and the normal employment rules still apply. The good news is that an employer can only be considered liable for any discrimination or harassment if they fail to take reasonable steps to prevent this from occurring.
To try to limit liability, and problems generally, employers should be clear on what is acceptable behaviour at these events. This does not need to be a statement of anti-festive sentiment but rather a reminder of the fact that this is a work event, work rules apply and, if offsite, the individuals are effectively ambassadors of the company and they should consider this at all times.
That said, if your workforce is particularly raucous, clear written guidance to staff about the acceptable standards of behaviour at the party, and the disciplinary sanctions that could result from breaches of the rules, should be provided.
This can include examples of unacceptable behaviour covering excessive alcohol consumption, fighting, use of illegal drugs and inappropriate language or physical contact. This should limit an employer’s liability.
Personal responsibility for employees
It is also worth stressing an often forgotten fact: any claim for discrimination or harassment is primarily against the person committing the act. The Equality Act 2010 only makes the employer jointly liable in certain circumstances. Personal responsibility is more often accepted by employees when they are aware they too can be held liable.
By way of practicalities, the limitation of free alcohol will often limit the risk of unforeseen events, although this can also be assisted by the provision of food.
Specify an appropriate dress code
In the same way, specifying a dress code can help attendees feel comfortable because they know what is expected of them. Also employers should think about the timing of events to avoid late night revelries which can invite…well…inappropriate invitations, health and safety transport issues, drink driving and inadvertent discrimination against those with children or of particular faiths. The venue is also important to avoid, say, the exclusion and embarrassment of employees with disabilities. No lap dancing clubs.
You’re still the boss
If events do take a turn for the worse, the same powers are available to an employer as there would be if the act was committed at work.
Harassment, discrimination and bringing the company into disrepute are disciplinary issues that can lead to dismissal. In doing this, be consistent and employers should apply any harassment and other policies in full.
The next day
Finally, if the party is on a week day, make sure you are clear on your expectations in terms of turning up for work the next morning. If you have been flexible in the past, employees may assume this. If you require them to be working normally tell them. If anyone calls in sick, insist that they speak to someone rather than just email or text in. This will generally flush out those that have a genuine problem or don’t. Either way, you need to clarify the reason for absence before taking any action to avoid hangovers for the organisation.
David Buckle is a consultant employment solicitor at Cubism Law.
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