It’s the silly season. Lots of fun and frolics and that’s just at work! And beware – “The Office Christmas Party”!
A recent case has highlighted that employers can be held vicariously liable for the actions of their employees at office parties if those actions are deemed to have been committed in the course of employment. This isn’t a new area of the law, but it is a timely reminder of the importance for employers to have policies and processes in place.
The two most common forms of unacceptable behaviour are likely to be alcohol-induced aggressive behaviour or sexual harassment. I remember well an office Christmas party that I attended when I was working with the Fire Brigade. The alcohol flowed, and some office antics got out of hand resulting in a senior manager sexually harassing one of the women who worked in the office. The fallout from that on the Monday morning is still very clear in my mind and, whilst not the purpose of this blog, reinforces to me the importance of taking steps in advance to ensure this doesn’t happen. It was an awful experience for ALL those involved.
Employers must be aware of the important role they have to play in ensuring the appropriate behaviours at work-related events. Ahead of Christmas, here are some simple steps employers can take to keep them out of trouble, to keep all staff happy, and most importantly, to tell staff about before the Christmas event.
- Distinguish between those social events which are intricately linked to work and those which are not. For example, an office/work- organised Christmas event – whether the employer contributes financially or not – will be regarded, most likely, as a work-related event. If it is an event organised by a small group of staff who are holding an event in their home, then this isn’t likely to be viewed in the same light;
- Take all reasonable steps to ensure that employees know what discriminatory and harassment acts are – this is likely to be via a policy and to be reinforced via training. An employer who has taken sufficient steps to minimise any risk of being held vicariously liable will have all of this in place as well as standards of behaviour that are upheld appropriately;
- Provide a clear policy on the standards of behaviour expected at office parties and what kinds of behaviour are unacceptable. For example, throwing up, throwing food and throwing punches are generally not forms of acceptable behaviour although all the above can occur after alcohol has been consumed;
- Be aware also that some people will not want to consume alcohol because of health or religious reasons and this must be part of the accepted behaviours. Staff should not be made to feel awkward or excluded because of their own personal beliefs or preferences.
- At the party itself, put two or three managers in charge of monitoring the activities of staff and their intake of alcohol. Let staff know, in advance, that this will happen to avoid any clashes on the day itself;
- Take every step to protect employees from any form of harassment and that includes third party harassment i.e. from someone other than a work colleague, for example, a member of waiting or bar staff, other members of the public or entertainers.
And importantly - Enjoy yourselves! This isn’t meant to curtail fun, but it is meant to lay out your expectations and ensure that everyone has fun. If you would like to find out more about any of the content of this blog, or if you have any queries, please contact me.
Wishing you a very Happy and blessed Christmas and all the very best for 2019.