The Christmas bash is often the only work event that embraces everyone in the business, and throws together individuals with polarised social, religious and political beliefs. Toss in some free alcohol and a dash of end of year fever and you have the perfect cocktail for an inappropriate comment or gesture which could lead to an employment tribunal claim.
The classic example is where a person makes a 'joke' about, say, sexual orientation; three people in the group laugh, but the fourth feels humiliated. Although the person who made the joke did not intend to discriminate, the employer could still be liable (as it is vicariously liable for the acts of its employees done in the course of employment), in addition to the individual who made the joke.
So 'harmless banter' at the office party could lead to an individual being on the receiving end of a formal grievance, being dismissed for gross misconduct.
Employers should therefore consider taking the following steps before the Christmas festivities begin:
- ensure equal opportunities policies are up to date
- at the office party, and other social events, offer a selection of food and drink that caters for different religions/ cultures
- circulate clear written guidelines on equal opportunities and harassment, and the disciplinary sanctions that could result from breaches of the rules, including inappropriate secret Santa gifts and sporting offensive fancy dress costumes
- comply with health and safety obligations - employers are responsible for the health and safety of employees both during, and on their way home from, the office party
- remind staff about the social media policy, and the consequences of posting pictures online that could infringe an individual's privacy rights and bring the business into disrepute
- be clear about expectations regarding absence or a late start the following day – and ensure employees are treated consistently
- ensure post party complaints are dealt with seriously and in accordance with company procedures
Laws and policies are not introduced to stop people having fun – but rather to allow everyone to feel at ease in their workplace and when socialising with colleagues. After all, Christmas time should be the season of goodwill for everyone.
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.