Italy: Avoiding Problems At The Christmas Party

As the Christmas party season approaches HR and senior management are faced with ensuring that employees' behaviour does not get out of hand.  The office party is a treat and a thank you for the staff for their hard work during the year but often, when alcohol is involved, it can lead to things getting out of control.  

Many companies allow a "laddish" culture to thrive where banter is commonplace; whilst employees may feel more relaxed in such an environment it is all too easy for "edgy" comments to be taken the wrong way and for things to spiral out of control.  The Christmas party is the perfect environment for a situation to blow up when challenging comments are made and the resulting fall-out can have serious repercussions for the business and can even end up in the Employment Tribunal when alcohol loosens the tongue and takes the brakes off inhibitions. 

A discrimination case heard earlier this year appeared to define how the context that comments made under the "banter" banner should be regarded; the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT)'s decision in the case of Evans –v- Xactly Corporation where David Evans, an employee of the American company Xactly Corporation Limited, brought a claim against his former employer, following his dismissal, alleging that he had been discriminated against on the basis of race and disability when he was called "a fat ginger pikey".  Mr. Evans contended that his diabetes which caused his weight gain and his close association with the traveller community meant that the comment amounted to discrimination on two counts.  However, the Employment Appeal Tribunal supported the Employment Tribunal's decision that due to the robust culture of banter that existed within Xactly to which Mr. Evans frequently participated, the comments directed at him were merely part of the culture of the firm that such comments did not have the purpose or effect of violating Mr Evans dignity or creating an intimidating or offensive environment. 

Many HR professionals took the EAT 's decision to mean that if it was commonplace in the working environment for staff to make impertinent and disrespectful remarks in the name of banter then any complaints arising from this situation were invalid, which may not necessarily be the case.  

The best way to manage the Christmas party is to make the staff aware that whilst they may not be in the workplace but the normal rules of conduct still apply to them.  It may be prudent to appoint two or three senior individuals to monitor the staff and head off any potential situations.  Employers must remember that they can be held vicariously liable for their staff's behaviour to other people and each other when they are at workplace social events.

However, it should also not be forgotten that the effects of alcohol at a Christmas party can be felt by the management staff as well as the employees as demonstrated by the case of  Bellman –v- Northampton Recruitment Ltd. when the extended after-party led to a catastrophic situation.   Northern Recruitment Ltd. hosted a Christmas party where all the employees attended including Mr. Major the managing director and Mr. Bellman who was part of the sales force.  The party ended and the offer of further drinks in a hotel bar was made by Mr. Major and Mr. Bellman and others chose to accept the offer.  During the course of the additional drinking there was some discussion about staff salaries and the fact that there was no parity between staff members and one person was paid considerably more than his peers.  Mr. Major's management style was "his way or no way" and considered that all decisions were his and his alone.  Mr. Major began to lose his temper and struck Mr. Bellman causing an injury to his eye and other members of staff attempted to restrain Mr. Major who broke away and was now in uncontrollable; Mr. Bellman held his hands out in a conciliatory gesture but Mr. Major struck him again with such force that he knocked out Mr. Bellman who fell back with such force that when his head struck the marble floor he sustained life-changing brain damage.

All businesses should try to ensure the safety of their staff and not encourage an environment that could lead to harm or pose a risk to the staff or members of the public.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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