By Tina Chander, Partner – Head of Employment Law at Wright Hassall (www.wrighthassall.co.uk)
It might be the strangest festive period for many years, with few organisations considering a Christmas Party, but even a virtual meet-up, with perhaps alcohol sent in advance, is still an organised event that is still essentially an extension of the workplace.The same rules and expectations apply.
VIRTUAL PROBLEMS TO FACE IN THE REAL WORLD
Although the party may take place outside of the workplace and normal office hours, there remains the risk that an employer will be liable for the actions of its staff. Unfortunately, consuming high volumes of alcohol can be the catalyst for serious legal issues, with incidents of dis- crimination or harassment not unheard of.
The availability of alcohol and the relaxed social environment can soon see festivities spill over, and sexual harassment is usually the most common problem at these events, even if they are not occurring in the physical world.
Accusations of discrimination on the grounds of age, race or sexual orientation also occur – I’m sure we can all picture the type of unsavoury scenario described.
PROTECT YOUR ORGANISATION
When the drinks are flowing, emotions can become heightened and this can lead to serious issues occurring.Any existing workplace tensions can escalate into verbal or physical confrontations, as members of staff decide to confront one another, while under the influence.
This type of unacceptable behaviour could lead to claims for potentially unlimited compensation, not to mention the significant amount of time and effort senior management must invest into the subsequent investigation.
If the return to the office in January wasn’t stressful enough, these anxieties can be enhanced when employment lawyers are called to deal with an incident.
There are several steps organisations should follow to avoid becoming that client:
- When employees can bring partners, be sure not to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and don’t assume all partners will be of the opposite sex;
- Don’t leave anybody out – every member of staff should be invited to the Christmas party, even if it’s online, regardless of whether they’re ill or on leave, as not doing so could result in claims of discrimination.
- Ensure you have an equal opportunities/anti-harassment and anti – discrimination policy in place;
- Shortly before the Christmas party, remind employees of the existence of the relevant policies and confirm that it applies equally to business events outside of the workplace and outside of office hours;
- Tell employees to enjoy themselves and have a good time, but remind them that inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated and could result in disciplinary action;
- If hired entertainers tell racist, sexist or offensive jokes and the employer does not fulfil its duty to protect employees from this unwanted conduct, it could be liable for harassment claims;
- If you are sending employees alcohol gifts ahead of a virtual party, think about how much you send and be mindful that employees will be able to readily top up there drinks in the comfort of their own homes;
- Ensure a senior manager retains responsibility for an online event, able to disconnect quickly, anyone who appears to close to crossing the line in terms of their behaviour.
WAITING FOR THE RESTRICTIONS TO BE EASED
If you have been given the task of organising the work Christmas party in the New Year, when the Covid-19 restrictions are relaxed, you should exercise caution when booking the event.
Whilst it may be tempting to go all out and impress colleagues by arranging a free bar in a venue that stays open until the early hours, by doing so you are encouraging staff to drink excessively. Not only does it increase the likelihood of unacceptable behaviour occurring, it could present its own health and safety challenges.
Remember, an organisation has a responsibility to look after the well- being of its staff, not to mention its own reputation, so providing guests with limitless alcohol isn’t a smart move.