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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Avoiding a festive HR hangover

‘Tis the season when corporations suddenly find themselves liable for Christmas party misconduct, writes Tina Chander

As we approach the final weeks of 2019, businesses across the UK turn their attention to the end of year celebrations and upcoming Christmas parties.
For many, the opportunity to let their hair down and enjoy some casual drinks in a relaxed social setting can be an exciting prospect. Whilst no-one wants to play the Grinch, it is worth reminding colleagues that the Christmas party is essentially an extension of the workplace and the same rules and expectations apply.

The potential problems
Although the party may take place outside of the workplace and normal office hours, there remains the risk that an employer will be liable for the actions of its staff. Unfortunately, consuming high volumes of alcohol can be the catalyst for serious legal issues, with incidents of discrimination or harassment not unheard of. The availability of alcohol and the relaxed social environment can soon see festivities spill over, and sexual harassment is usually the most common problem at these events.
Accusations of discrimination on the grounds of age, race or sexual orientation also occur – I’m sure we can all picture the type of unsavoury scenario described.

Protect your organisation
When the drinks are flowing, emotions can become heightened and this can lead to serious issues occurring. Any existing workplace tensions can escalate into verbal or physical confrontations, as members of staff decide to confront one another, while under the influence. This type of unacceptable behaviour could lead to claims for potentially unlimited compensation, not to mention the significant amount of time and effort senior management must invest into the subsequent investigation. If the back to work blues weren’t already bad enough, these anxieties can be enhanced when employment lawyers are called to deal with an incident.
There are several steps organisations should follow to avoid becoming
that client:

• When employees can bring partners, be sure not to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and don’t assume all partners will be of the opposite sex;
• Don’t leave anybody out – every member of staff should be invited to the Christmas party, regardless of whether they’re ill or on leave, as not doing so could result in claims of discrimination.
• Ensure you have an equal opportunities/anti-harassment
policy in place;
• Consider limiting the bar tab. Providing limitless amounts of alcohol to employees, without monitoring who is drinking what is not only irresponsible, it can also increase the likelihood of a serious issue occurring;

Exercise caution when organising
If you have been given the task of organising the work Christmas party, then it’s important to exercise caution when booking the event. It may be tempting to go all out and impress colleagues by arranging a free bar in a venue that stays open until the early hours. However, by doing this, you are encouraging staff to drink excessively. Not only does it increase the likelihood of unacceptable behaviour occurring, it could present its own health and safety challenges.

Remember, an organisation has a responsibility to look after the wellbeing of its staff, not to mention its own reputation, so providing guests with limitless alcohol isn’t a smart move.

Tina Chander, Partner, Wright Hassall
She acts for small firms to large national and global businesses, advising on all aspects of employment tribunal proceedings and appeals.

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