Maz Dannourah

Senior Associate

Employment and HR

Christmas cheer and seasonal woes in employment law

Maz Dannourah

The annual office Christmas party is a fantastic way to boost morale.  It enables businesses to reward staff for their hard work throughout the year, and enables staff to bond.  Here we look at what common pitfalls to avoid, what happens if staff bonding goes wrong on various levels, and how to ensure that your business is protected from certain headaches of a legal nature during the festive season.

Just because the Christmas party may take place in the evening away from work premises does not mean that employment laws do not apply.  Drunken behaviour can result in employees bringing tribunal claims each year.  It is sensible for employers to remind staff of what constitutes unacceptable behaviour at staff social events - as well as highlighting the likely consequences of such behaviour. While it may be hard to completely stop employees over-indulging during festivities, limiting the amount of free alcohol at the party, providing non-alcoholic options and supplying enough food can all help minimise the risk of employees getting drunk and behaving inappropriately.  

In order to avoid discrimination, it is advisable to think carefully about making the event as inclusive as possible, so that everyone is welcome and can enjoy it. If partners are to be invited, it is important not to assume the gender of those partners. Be aware that as Christmas is a Christian holiday, no-one should be pressured to attend if they do not wish to do to on religious grounds.  Employers need to be sensitive to employees who don't drink alcohol or who don't eat certain foods.  A seminal Employment Tribunal case involving Bernard Manning who was invited as the entertainment in a hotel in Derby confirmed that it is always a good idea to consider briefing any speakers or entertainers in advance to ensure that their material is suitable and won't give offence.

Ideally you should provide clear written guidance to all employees about acceptable standards of behaviour at work-related social events, equal opportunities and harassment, as well as the disciplinary sanctions that could result from breaches of the rules. Make it clear that fighting, excessive alcohol consumption, the use of illegal drugs, inappropriate behaviour, sexist or racist remarks and comments about sexual orientation, disability, age or religion will not be tolerated.  Having a general policy which applies throughout the year is sensible, and attention can simply be drawn to it prior to the party.  This can be included in your staff handbook. 

Because employers are likely to remain liable for acts of harassment, discrimination, assault or other unwanted conduct carried out by their employees, if any such allegations are made during or after the event, employers should follow their usual disciplinary process and ensure that any complaint is investigated thoroughly before action is taken.  Do not discipline any employees at the party itself. Send them home if necessary and deal with the incident when back at the office, in a professional environment.

Some employers may not be aware that it is an offence for an employer to knowingly permit or ignore the use, production or supply of any controlled drugs taking place on their premises. In addition, employees who are convicted of criminal offences involving drugs, sexual misconduct or drink driving may also damage their employer's reputation or undermine trust and confidence. In these cases you may well be justified in taking disciplinary action against the employee, and this could result in a dismissal for gross misconduct.

Be clear about your expectations regarding absence or lateness the next day.  Ensure that all staff are aware that if your expectations are breached, disciplinary action may be taken.  You may however be well advised to show a certain degree of leniency in order to foster the good will of the season!  

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