With the festivities around the corner, too many employers will be letting their guard as well as their hair down this Christmas. The aftermath of the office party can be open season for employment claims. In legal terms, no other time of year should come with quite so many health-warnings. We set out some tips below to make sure your office festivities go like a dream – and not the nightmare before Christmas!
Employers have a duty of care to protect their employees from injury and to provide a safe working environment. Make sure any tree light cables are safely stowed, decorations aren’t placed on heated surfaces and no Christmas trees are obstructing fire exits etc. Also, step ladders rather than swivel chairs are always better for hanging those decorations.
Remember, loose lips sink ships! Obviously the Christmas party is a great time for managers to connect with staff socially. But they should be careful not to gossip about other staff or reveal personal information. Worse still, it’s not the best time to let slip the plans to restructure the sales team in the New Year. Also, managers should be careful what they promise employees over a beer as we have seen cases where employees sue over alleged contractual promises of a pay rise/promotion etc.
Also remember that providing free alcohol and condoning excessive drinking can result in potential claims if employees injure themselves and others as a result. Responsible drinking must be seen to be encouraged. Also be vigilant of potential drug abuse at the office party as it is a criminal offence for employers to knowingly permit or ignore the use of controlled drugs on their premises!
If your Christmas party spills into town, make sure neutral venues are chosen. Ensure that they are accessible and suitable for disabled staff, and do not cause offence to persons of a particular gender or religion for example.
Complaints of harassment are likely to be the first on the list in the sober light of day, with sexual harassment being the main contender. We are not suggesting employers stand in the way of romance, but where someone’s conduct creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive environment, employers can find themselves on the hook. There is no requirement that the employer must have participated or condoned the unwanted conduct; they will still be liable if they are oblivious to it. This doesn’t just apply to the office party but also situations where work colleagues wouldn’t have otherwise found themselves together socially but for the works do. To guard against this, acceptable standards of behaviour should be communicated in your policies and in any pre-party communications.
Harassment comes in other forms too. Complaints for racial and religious harassment come a close second this time of year. This could apply to your choice of entertainment, choice of Secret Santa gift or the jokes employees may be inclined to tell after a few drinks. Again communication of acceptable conduct is key.
The question then arises as to whether you can discipline an employee for conduct that occurs outside ‘work’ in its literal sense. This depends on various circumstances such as the seriousness of the employee’s behaviour, the venue, the extent to which you have condoned or fuelled the situation by way of excessive alcohol. The party itself whether in or outside of the work premises will always count as work. The pre-meet and after party, where employees gather, are also likely to be fair game. After that, particularly behind closed doors, it starts to become less of the employer’s business but there are always exceptions (for example if the employer pays for, or even suggests, hotel accommodation for staff). You should take advice if you’re struggling to identify the line where works stops and private life starts.
We hope the above hasn’t dampened your Christmas spirit and hopefully these few pointers will stand you in good stead to have a very merry and litigation free New Year! Wishing you a very merry Christmas and prosperous New Year from all of us at Berry Smith.