For many employees, the office Christmas party will be something to look forward to in the coming weeks, perhaps more so for the anticipated gossip the next day. However many employers are not feeling so jolly about the impending festivities. It has emerged recently that many employers are so concerned about the potential legal fall-out from office Christmas parties, that they are not planning on having parties at all. A recent survey by Peninsula of 3,500 companies has found that four out of five employers will not have a Christmas party this year in order to avoid the potential consequences of employment tribunal claims.

Although most parties are likely to take place outside of the workplace and outside normal office hours, this makes no difference to employers' responsibilities to their employees, as the party is clearly an extension of the workplace.

Stories of unwanted drunken fumblings, suggestive comments and violence after a few glasses of wine at the Christmas party are far from uncommon. Most of the companies surveyed admitted that they had sacked a member of staff because of their behaviour, and confirmed that one of their main fears is receiving complaints of sexual harassment post-party. This is particularly the case this year because of the new wider definition of sexual harassment. Under the new definition, employers could be vicariously liable for the inappropriate behaviour of their staff.

A recent case has served as a sobering message for many employers in these types of situations. An employee of a large pharmaceutical firm, sued her employers over a male colleague’s misbehaviour at their office party. The man behaving badly spilled wine down her top, and made lewd comments, jokes and innuendos to her. She complained to her employers, who took disciplinary action against the offender, but she felt that the action didn’t go far enough and subsequently sought legal advice. Days before the case went before an employment tribunal, she settled out of court for a reported £1million.

All employers have a duty to provide a safe system of work both in the office and at office functions, and in order to minimise the risk of such a claim employers should:

  • take any complaint of harassment seriously
  • have an open mind
  • treat the situation confidentially and sympathetically
  • act promptly to remove the possible source of harassment
  • investigate the complaint thoroughly and document the process
  • avoid discriminating against either party.

It is also advisable for employers to take practical steps before the party such as issuing guidance, stating what standards of conduct are expected of all employees. Although employees may feel employers are becoming too paternalistic and Scrooge-like, employers will be less likely to face undesirable consequences in the long run.

And it is not just claims of sexual harassment that employers are worried about. Alcohol-fuelled grievances, violence and hangover-related absences are also causing problems for managers. Employers are advised to ensure that all grievances and disciplinary action are dealt with correctly, and that in order to avoid claims of unfair dismissal, the minimum statutory procedures should be followed and full investigations conducted.

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