‘Tis the season to get into the spirit, break out the eggnog and let our hair down in the company of those people we spend all year moaning about. No, not the in-laws, our colleagues! The office party is an annual opportunity to get to know those who work around you, show a fun side to your employees and potentially create an embarrassing topic of conversation at the coffee machine the following morning.
But with a relaxed party atmosphere comes the opportunity for mischief, and sometimes this can spill over into serious issues for employers. Below are the common perils associated with the office party, and our recommendations on reducing the risks so you can enjoy your turn on the karaoke without worrying.
Drunken misconduct at the party
If alcohol will be available, staff should be reminded that the party is a work-based event even if it is held off company premises and that they are expected to comply with the accepted standards of conduct. Ideally, employers should have an existing policy on conduct in the workplace, and should make clear to employees that these standards will still apply. Employers should notify staff before the event of what is expected of them and encourage staff to drink responsibly.
Employers would be sensible to limit the amount of alcohol available and to ensure that other drinks are available, especially for those who do not consume alcohol on religious grounds. Additionally, ensuring that there is sufficient food available can help to counter the effects of alcohol.
If inappropriate drunken behaviour does occur, a manager or other responsible person should initially speak to the employee informally and warn them about the risks of continued bad behaviour. If necessary, the employee should be asked to leave (with transport arranged if required) and they may become subject to the employer’s disciplinary proceedings.
Safety of employees
Employers have a duty of care towards their employees in the course of their employment, and this extends to events outside of the office. Employers also have a duty of care towards non-employees such as other road users.
By taking reasonable steps in advance of the party, employers can reduce the likelihood of employees taking undue risks on their journey home, and reduce their own risk of liability as a result. This may include arranging for transport from the venue, or ensuring that there are designated drivers who are not supplied with alcohol.
Absence the following day
If applicable, employees should be reminded that they are expected to attend work the following day as normal and that unauthorised absence and lateness will not be tolerated. If an employee then does not come to work the next day, this may be treated as an unauthorised absence and subject to the usual disciplinary process.
Hangovers and being under the influence
If an employee turns up to work under the influence of alcohol, the employer should hold a brief meeting with them to remind them of the employer’s policy regarding alcohol misuse. If there has been a breach of the policy, this may lead to disciplinary action.
If the employee poses a health and safety risk or is incapable of carrying out their role, the employer should send him or her home, arranging transport if the employee is incapable of getting home safely. If necessary, the employer should also suspend the employee pending a further disciplinary investigation
Harassment at the party
The employer will be vicariously liable for acts of harassment by its employees. It is therefore necessary for the employer to take reasonable steps to prevent harassment occurring. This may include putting in place appropriate policies and staff training regarding harassment and ensuring staff are aware that this extends to behaviour at the party. Employers should make clear that they will not tolerate harassment of any kind towards employees, guests or venue staff and that those who do engage in such conduct may face disciplinary proceedings.
Employers should consider in broad terms how to reduce the risk of discrimination claims arising out of the Christmas party. The venue should be accessible for everyone and suitable for employees of all ages. Ideally, the party should take place at a time that is not going to disadvantage particular groups (for example, a party on a Friday night may result in discrimination against Jewish employees). The food provided should meet different individual and religious dietary requirements, and decorations should be selected carefully to ensure that they do not offend any particular employees.
Of course, the safest way to avoid any of these issues is to not have a party at all. This would mean no one would hear your marvellous rendition of Fairytale of New York, but there are downsides too. Staff parties are a good boost for staff morale, and a refusal to hold a party could have a nasty effect on productivity. It also encourages staff to get to know each other, which can improve communication and trust in the workplace.
We hope you enjoy the holidays and have a very happy new year!
This article was first published as part of our Employment Law Update - December 2014. Register above to receive our updates as soon as they are published, directly to your inbox!
This article is offered for general informational purposes only, and does not constitute legal advice. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Solomon Taylor & Shaw.