Employment law - Party pitfalls

Jingle bells could be replaced by alarm bells for practices who fail to consider some of the potential problems of the Christmas party season [Employment law article from 'Practice Manager' Issue 09]

ALL I want for Christmas is... no disciplinaries or grievances please! Most people enjoy a good office Christmas night out. They can be a great way to boost morale and reward the hard work and effort made by employees throughout the year. However, what may not be apparent to some managers is that employment law still applies whether a practice’s party takes place in or outside the workplace, during or after working hours. The right for an employee to be protected by the practice’s bullying and harassment policy continues even at a social gathering.

So let’s start with some practicalities and some tips on how the risk to staff can be minimised.

It might be tradition to run a Secret Santa gift swap in the workplace. Most people use common sense here as to what’s appropriate but it won’t do any harm to let employees know that gifts cannot be obscene or offensive – remember the recipient may not find the joke as funny as everyone else.

Practices considering festive decorations might be concerned about the potential to offend faith groups who do not celebrate Christmas. It is useful to know that the Equality Act does not forbid any traditional customs and, as most festive decorations are not inherently religious, it would be hard to see how these could cause any offence to anyone on the grounds of their religion.

It may seem like overkill but, before the party takes place, consider advising staff about acceptable behaviour and boundaries and warn them of the potential consequences of inappropriate behaviour. Remind them that, even though they are at a party, it is still work and every employee has the right to be in an environment free from bullying and harassment. It would be useful to highlight to staff the practice’s bullying and harassment policy and the disciplinary sanctions that could be invoked if rules are breached. Some examples of inappropriate behaviour include excessive alcohol consumption, fighting, making discriminatory or inappropriate sexual comments and taking illegal substances.

While employers are not responsible for their staff’s alcohol consumption, the risk of excess can be minimised by not providing a free “all you can drink” bar. Consider providing a limited supply – perhaps half a bottle of wine for each employee? It would be wise to ensure there are plenty of non-alcoholic options available for non-drinkers and drivers. Bear in mind too that employees of certain religious beliefs may not drink and may also be vegetarian or unable to eat certain types of food.

Despite your best efforts to encourage moderate behaviour, where parties are held mid-week some employees will always be tempted to phone in sick the following day. It is important to make clear that attendance at work the next day is expected from everyone, including practice managers, doctors and dentists. Where an employee does phone in sick the next day, proceed carefully. The reason for their absence may appear obvious to you but it can be hard to prove it is due to excess alcohol consumption, so we suggest seeking further advice on this. One way to avoid this would of course be to hold the party on a night where no work is planned the next day.

If you are responsible for arranging any sort of entertainment or corporate speakers then plan this accordingly to avoid embarrassing any member of staff with rude or inappropriate jokes or comments. Keep a common sense attitude. Similarly, at the end of the night, consider how staff will get home safely. If there are plenty of transport links employees can access then this may not be a problem. It is worth having taxi numbers to hand for those who need them and, if the party venue is remote, consider arranging a minibus. And if you know a staff member is taking the car home, don’t let them drink and drive.

Social media presents another risk area during party season. A recent decision from a tribunal in Northern Ireland held that an employee was fairly dismissed because comments he posted on his Facebook page amounted to harassment of a female colleague and he was therefore in breach of the employer’s Dignity at Work Policy. He posted obscene, derogatory and sexual comments about the woman after a work night out. The comment mentioned his employer’s name and was read by a number of other work colleagues. The woman heard about the comments and asked if he would remove them. Following this intervention the man posted further lewd comments, eventually leading to his dismissal.

Clearly this article covers many worst-case scenarios but most Christmas parties go off with little or no hitches. Common sense prevails (usually), so have a great (and careful) time.

 

Liz Symon is an employment law adviser at MDDUS

 

 

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