Workplace Christmas parties – What should employers be aware of?

It’s that time of year again. The festive season is nearly upon us and that means so is the office Christmas party!

The office Christmas party is a time for enjoyment and celebration. It allows colleagues to network and build relationships and helps to improve workplace morale after a busy year. However, it may also result in unwanted conduct because it often blurs the lines between work and play, especially where alcohol is involved. It is therefore important to remember that this is still a workplace activity to which employment law applies. Employers should therefore be careful to avoid and prevent behaviours which could lead to grievances, allegations of unlawful conduct and possible vicarious liability on the part of the employer. The most common allegations arising from an office party tend to be harassment and bullying.

What is harassment?

Harassment is any unwanted physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. It is important to bear in mind that a single incident can amount to harassment.

Unlawful harassment may involve conduct of a sexual nature (sexual harassment), or it may be related to age, disability, gender reassignment, marital or civil partner status, pregnancy or maternity, race, colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation.

Harassment may include, for example:

  1. unwanted physical conduct or “horseplay”, including touching, pinching, pushing and grabbing; or
  2. unwelcome sexual advances or suggestive behaviour (which the harasser may perceive as harmless);

A person may be harassed even if they were not the intended “target”. For example, a person may be harassed by racist jokes about a different ethnic group if the jokes create an offensive environment.

What is bullying?

Bullying is offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour involving the misuse of power that can make a person feel vulnerable, upset, humiliated, undermined or threatened. Power does not always mean being in a position of authority, it can include both personal strength and the power to coerce through fear or intimidation.

Bullying can take the form of physical, verbal and non-verbal conduct. Bullying may include physical or psychological threats.

What practical steps can employers take to avoid issues arising?

  • Make sure the event is open to everyone and does not exclude staff who are, for example, absent on family related leave or due to sickness;
  • Ensure that equal opportunities and non-harassment and bullying policies are in place and that those policies make clear the standards of behaviour expected and what sort of behaviour is unacceptable. Remind all staff of those policies before the party;
  • If the party is being held at the employer’s own premises you should review the health and safety policy and also check any insurance policy. Carry out an assessment of potential health and safety risks beforehand and make sure the first aid box is fully stocked. If the party is being held elsewhere arrange a visit to the venue in advance to assess any potential risks;
  • Issue a statement to all staff in advance to inform them of the likelihood of disciplinary action in the event that they do not adhere to the standards of behaviour expected or if there are any unauthorised absences at work the following day (a way of avoiding this would be to hold the party on a Friday);
  • Brief management as to what to look out for and how to deal with any situations that arise in accordance with internal policies. Assign one or two managers to keep track of staff activities throughout the party and monitor their alcohol intake;
  • Ensure that Management are aware to avoid conversations about career prospects or salary to avoid any misinterpretation afterwards;
  • Brief any speakers in advance to ensure that they do not say anything offensive or unsuitable;
  • Limit the amount of free alcohol provided and supply plenty of food;
  • Provide non-alcoholic alternatives for those who may not drink alcohol for religious or other reasons and consider whether any reasonable adjustments or physical assistance is necessary for any disabled staff; and
  • Try to impose set times for starting and finishing the party and organise group transport home in advance if necessary.

For more information or for any employment law enquiries please contact Louise Allen at [email protected] or on 020 7408 8898.