After working hard all year long, the countdown to the annual work Christmas party can generate a buzz of excitement in the office, as employees look forward to letting their hair down and enjoying an evening of indulgence.
Tina Chander, employment lawyer at leading UK law firm Wright Hassall warns: “Everyone wants to have a good time, but it’s important to remember that consuming large amounts of alcohol can prompt serious legal issues for individuals and their employers.
“From an employment law perspective, though the party takes place away from the premises and outside of working hours, employers are not necessarily protected from any blowback caused by staff behaviour.
“Claims on the grounds of discrimination and harassment tend to be the most common issues with an alcohol-fuelled party, and unfortunately for employers, there is always the potential for liability with these claims.
“After a few too many drinks, people can sometimes behave in a way they would never dream of when sober, and instances of sexual harassment or discrimination relating to race, age and gender are surprisingly quite common.
“When alcohol is involved, emotions can sometimes come to the surface, which can aggravate any existing workplace tensions, resulting in a physical or verbal confrontation between colleagues.
“Such behaviour could lead to claims for potentially unlimited compensation against both the employer and the employee responsible. The time and effort required by management in dealing with any grievance and/or disciplinary issues arising from any such incident, should also not be forgotten.
“Incidents such as these are unfortunately all too common and every January, employment lawyers will be inundated with calls from clients regarding such issues. To lessen the risk of being that client, employers should firstly recognise the potential for problems and take the following steps:
- Everyone must be invited, regardless of whether they are ill or on leave – not inviting certain individuals could result in claims of discrimination;
- When employees can bring partners, do not discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and assume all partners will be of the opposite sex;
- Ensure that you have an equal opportunities/anti-harassment policy in place;
- Remind workers before the party that the same code of conduct applies, and that any instances of harassment, discrimination or violence will not be tolerated under any circumstances;
- If hired entertainers tell racist, sexist or offensive jokes and the employer does not fulfil its duty to protect employees from this unwanted conduct, it could be liable for harassment claims;
- Consider limiting the bar tab. Providing limitless amounts of alcohol to employees, without monitoring who is drinking what is irresponsible, and can increase the likelihood of a serious issue occurring;
- Consider appointing a senior, responsible employee to stay sober, monitor behaviour and step in if necessary.
Christmas gifts: Choose wisely…
Considering the inevitable gifts and invitations to other organisations’ Christmas festivities, it is important for employers to be mindful of their potential liability under the Bribery Act 2010. Failing to prevent bribery in the workplace is strict liability, and employers must show that it has ‘adequate procedures’ in place to successfully defend against such a case.
Regardless of size, all organisations should have policies in place to remind employees of what is and isn’t acceptable. Liability arises from both offering and receiving bribes. Reasonable gifts and hospitality, such as a bottle of wine or an invitation to dinner should not raise too much concern, but if employees are whisked away on a private jet, sipping champagne to meet Father Christmas in Lapland, questions may need to be asked!