The office Christmas party can be a great way to boost morale and build relationships with co-workers. However, following the rise of the #MeToo Movement, and a number of high profile sexual harassment scandals, employers may be left feeling more anxious than ever about exposing themselves to such claims arising from events at the office Christmas party.
We provide a short 5 point guide highlighting the steps that can be taken to help to avoid any post-party, HR hangover:
1. Office parties are an extension of the workplace
Office Christmas parties are considered to be an extension of the workplace therefore employers can be held liable for any incidents that occur at such events as they are considered to have happened ‘in the course of employment’. Liability may also extend to events that occur following the formal event, unless it can be shown that an after-party was an entirely independent, voluntary, and discreet event of a different nature to the one hosted by the company. This was the view taken in one case where a managing director physically attacked one of his employees at a gathering after the Christmas party. This “after party” was found to be a ‘follow on’ rather than a separate event so that the employer was vicariously liable for the MD’s actions.
Issuing a statement to employees in advance of a Christmas party may be a diplomatic way of reminding employees that, whilst they may not be in the workplace, the normal rules of conduct still apply and they will be subject to the usual disciplinary sanctions should any allegations of misconduct arise.
Employers should make the event inclusive and ensure arrangements are not considered to be discriminatory. Ensure that the catering arrangements take account of different individual and religious dietary requirements. Employers have a duty to protect employees from unwanted conduct so be careful to ensure that your choice of entertainment will not be viewed as offensive by any employees. Employers should consider briefing entertainers in advance of the party to ensure that their material is suitable.
3. Making Promises
Managers should also avoid discussions about career prospects or remuneration with employees, as words of encouragement and good intentions could be misinterpreted and may be considered to be contractually binding. In one case an employee resigned, claiming constructive dismissal on the grounds that the company director had broken a contractual promise made at a previous Christmas party to increase his salary. Although the employee in this case was unsuccessful, employers should be wary making such ‘promises’ in the euphoria of the Christmas party.
4. Be careful of the use of social media
The increasing use of social media platforms brings other risks associated with office Christmas parties. Uploading pictures of fellow colleagues without their consent could raise data protection issues and, depending upon the content, could also result in reputational damage to the company. Employers are advised to have social media policies in place and ensure employees are informed of the likely consequences or disciplinary sanctions which could result from inappropriate use of social media.
5. Disciplinary Action
Any grievances raised in cases of alleged misconduct should be taken seriously and properly investigated. Any failure to do so could result in an employee resigning and claiming constructive dismissal and possibly bringing a claim for discrimination. Employers must ensure that they treat all staff equally, regardless of seniority, and where more than one employee is involved in an incident, employers should ensure they are treated equally with regards to any investigation process or disciplinary sanctions, especially where memories are blurred by alcohol and the evidence is unclear.
If you would like any further advice please get in touch with a member of the team, or visit our Employment and HR service page for more information.