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‘Tis the season to be careful

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Year after year, employers have to deal with the fallout from their staff enjoying themselves too much at Christmas. Disciplinary action as a result of inappropriate behaviour is fast becoming as much of a festive tradition as putting up a tree and the Grafton Street Christmas lights.


So what is an employer to do?  At a minimum, a few simple precautions can be taken to minimise – or even avoid – problems.

The Christmas party is often the source – and sometimes the scene – of workplace difficulties. Very often, the effect of combining alcohol and people can naturally lead to trouble. Two main types of problem can arise at the Christmas party – unwanted or inappropriate behaviour, particularly of the amorous variety, or violent or aggressive interaction between colleagues. Loosened inhibitions can lead to workmates interacting with each other in a manner most unlike their normal day to day behaviour. That’s fine if the only consequence is mild embarrassment the next morning – but in some cases, the consequences can be much more serious.


The courts and tribunals have had to grapple with the fallout from Christmas parties for many years. It’s now generally accepted – and an employer ignores this principle at their peril – that office functions are merely an extension of the day’s work. In other words, employees are expected to treat their colleagues with the same respect that they would during the day – the fact that they’re at a party doesn’t lower the standard of behaviour normally expected from them.


This applies equally to employers – their obligation to provide a safe place of work during the day extends to the Christmas party.  Because it’s a work function, the usual standards apply.  Employers have just as much of a duty to protect their staff from harassment (sexual or otherwise) in the function room as they do in the boardroom. This means that employers have to be vigilant – and they certainly can’t labour under the misapprehension that it’s nothing to do with them if incidents occur at the Christmas party and someone raises a complaint (or, worse, initiates a claim).


There are a number of practical steps an employer can take to mitigate the risks.  Firstly, and most importantly, clear markers should be laid down in advance as to what constitutes acceptable behaviour (and, equally, what constitutes unacceptable behaviour).


The simplest way to do this is to send a gentle reminder to all staff in advance of the Christmas party noting that while this is a social occasion and everyone is entitled to have a good time, employees should ensure that they behave respectfully to their colleagues. The reminder should make it clear that any misbehaviour won’t be tolerated (and should note – again gently, if necessary – that if problems arise, disciplinary action may well follow).


As well as that, an employer should be vigilant at the party itself – very often a problem can be defused quickly if an employer notices it and takes steps to deal with it.  An employer – particularly in a large organisation – may also decide it’s useful to counsel managers of divisions in advance that they should keep an eye on their teams at the party and, if necessary, gently remind employees in advance that regular standards of behaviour are required.  An employer doesn’t need to be heavy-handed (and nothing kills the festive buzz like repeated references to elf and safety) and it should be relatively easy to make the point and then move on.


An employer should – of course – maintain appropriate policies that cover employee behaviour throughout the year.  An anti-bullying and harassment policy is particularly important – employees should be aware of what constitutes unacceptable behaviour (and, equally, what to do if they’re the subject of what they perceive to be unacceptable behaviour). Incidents arising at a Christmas party (or at other times during the year) will be dealt with under this policy.


The ‘main’ Christmas party is one thing – but very often (particularly in larger organisations) there will be a number of different functions in December. Working groups may have their own outings, for example. The obligations on the employer to ensure employees are safe extends equally to these.


As well as that, it’s worth noting that any social function – even if it only has a tenuous link to the workplace and takes place off the premises – may stand a good chance of qualifying as part of work. There have been a number of cases on this subject in recent years and employers shouldn’t assume that merely because they aren’t funding a night out, it has nothing to do with work. A very cautious approach is recommended – and one that should be backed up in writing.


Further online coverage of this article can be found here.







Patrick Walshe