With more and more employment legislation to be aware of in terms of protection for the employees’ employers may need to rethink their approach to the traditional Christmas party to protect themselves from potential tribunal claims.
Even though the party might be held out of work hours if it is work organised then we are all still bound by the expectations of conduct that would normally be in place. It is still the employer’s responsibility to ensure as far as possible your staff’s safety and well being.
It’s also not just legislation to think of, it’s the credibility and reputation of your Company locally.
You might think people at law firms would know better. Apparently not…
In a recent case before the Employment Appeal Tribunal in London, a female employee of a law firm in Suffolk claimed that gossip about her pregnancy following the firm’s Christmas party in 2007 constituted sex discrimination.
The claimant worked at the Ipswich branch of Solicitors. In early December 2007 she was in a relationship with a solicitor at the firm. She was pregnant by him, leading to the birth of their son in September 2008.
By the time of the firm’s Christmas party on 22 December, however, she did not know this. She got very drunk at the party and people noticed her “flirtatiously kissing” the firm’s IT manager. The couple left the party together and secured a hotel room (paid for by the firm) where, according to the IT Manager, they retired and had “unprotected sex”. Fast forward a few weeks and the female employee told her employer that she was pregnant.
Within an hour, the firm’s HR manager began gossiping and spreading rumours about her pregnancy and about the father of the child.
Predictably, the female employee was very upset and embarrassed by the gossip and asked if she could transfer to the firm’s other office in Kesgrave. The firm’s managing partners rejected the request.
The female employee decided she could no longer work alongside the HR Manager and filed a formal grievance. She said the firm had allowed the HR Manager to spread rumours about her “without any form of reprimand or disciplinary action”. She also complained that her relocation request was refused seemingly without consideration.
Because of her absence from the workplace, she was not paid for the month of February. In March, she resigned and commenced legal action for constructive unfair dismissal, sex discrimination, discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy, and harassment. At first instance, the tribunal dismissed her claims for discrimination and harassment. It upheld her claim for constructive unfair dismissal.
On appeal, the office gossip was adjudged to be “unwanted” and “caused the female employee embarrassment and upset” and, therefore, amounted to harassment on the grounds of pregnancy and sex.
So if even a law firm can get it wrong perhaps the guarantee to avoiding any HR issues is not to have a party at all. Reports suggest that many companies no longer have Christmas parties to avoid potential tribunal claims. But this is hardly the festive spirit is it?
So instead of saying “bah! Humbug!” and cancelling everything, follow our tips below to help get you through the party season unscathed:
- Make clear what behaviour is acceptable. Whilst you are not going to discipline staff for getting a little tipsy, fighting, being abusive or bringing the Company into disrepute would be taken very seriously
- Sexual harassment is an obvious risk. Company Diversity policies and training should make it clear that inappropriate behaviour or comments will not be tolerated.
- If any such allegations are made during or after the event, the key thing to remember is to follow your usual disciplinary process and ensure that any complaint is investigated thoroughly before any action is taken.
- Do not be tempted to discipline employees at the party itself. Send the employee(s) home, if appropriate, and deal with the incident when you are back at the office and sober.
- Think carefully about the entertainment you choose to ensure it is not offensive. Think about how you can avoid absenteeism on the following morning. Perhaps you could provide breakfast to encourage staff to come in on time. Or maybe staff can draw lots for staggered start times.
- Limit the amount of free alcohol you provide, maybe issue 3 vouchers for alcoholic drinks and then unlimited soft drinks.
- Keep an eye out for employees under 18, they are not allowed alcohol under the law. Have a Senior Manager present who volunteers not to drink and can monitor events and intervene if things start to get out of hand.
- Limit your own alcohol intake; you don’t want to be offering pay rises or promotions!
- Provide food regularly, maybe cakes in the afternoon followed by a buffet or meal later in the day.
- Check beforehand any special dietary requirements, remember some religions do not allow certain foods.
- Do not let employees drive home drunk. Suggest a finish time for the event and ask staff to plan their journeys home and order taxis in advance.
- Remember that a well- managed Christmas party can provide a significant boost to staff morale and loyalty, which for many businesses could be invaluable after what has been a difficult financial year.
So that just leaves us to wish you a happy festive season if you celebrate Christmas and to everyone a great new year!
If you have any questions about this or would like any HR support, get in touch with us