‘Tis the season to be merry, so it’s time for the annual Christmas party; but for many employers it’s often more fraught than fun, as wherever and whenever the event takes place, it’s still an extension of the working environment.
Whether the party is at a venue or informally in the office after hours, guidelines need to be in place and employers have a duty to safeguard staff welfare, so setting boundaries of what is acceptable behaviour, and highlighting that misconduct will result in the usual disciplinary procedures, needs to be set out before the event.
Alcohol consumption needs to be managed, as employees may become uninhibited after consuming too much alcohol. Christmas party meltdown was behind a recent case that reached the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT), but another big issue for the employer in this case was that the two employees involved in a fracas were given apparently different treatment in the disciplinary procedures that followed.
The EAT decision in the case of MBNA Ltd v Jones involved an employee who was dismissed for punching a colleague at a work event, whereas the colleague was given only a final written warning for sending threatening texts to him after the work event had finished.
Jane Crosby, Hart Brown’s employment expert says: “Although the appeal found for the employers, saying they had acted reasonably in their decision to dismiss Mr Jones, despite the other employee receiving only a warning, the cost and disruption of protracted tribunal hearings is enough to remind companies of the importance of not taking short cuts where violence is involved and to make a thorough investigation.
“Any difference in treatment must be justifiable, have a clear distinction, and should take into account previous conduct and provocation.”
Another Christmas party risk, once tongues are loosened by drink, is sexual harassment and unwanted advances, which could make an employer liable for not providing adequate protection for an employee. It’s another area that should be covered by a strong policy and clear attitude at management level.
And if there’s a zero tolerance policy towards alcohol in the workplace, managers need to give guidelines on what will be acceptable at the office party or other team get-togethers, particularly if it’s during the working day.
The party also brings in diversity issues, as the workforce may have different cultural or religious beliefs that affect their view on the Christian festival, and no one should be put under pressure to take part in Christmas-related events.
Jane adds: “It may feel like party-pooping to send a set of instructions along with the invitation, but it’s the best way to avoid a lasting hangover that upsets everyone. Some simple ways to keep things under control include reinforcing the message that it’s an extension of the workplace and that the standard of behaviour expected is just the same as at work. It’s also worth making this a time to update staff on their equality obligations, to be sure they understand what could constitute harassment and making clear that it is unacceptable.
“It’s a safeguard for the company if you do such training and record that it’s taken place, alongside making sure your disciplinary policies are quite clear about what constitutes acceptable behaviour, and making sure they are applied consistently.”
This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.