We’re well into December and lots of us are looking forward to the annual Christmas party at work. Even in these straitened times, there’s usually
something for the staff. Maybe it isn’t a full-blown sit-down dinner at a posh restaurant – it may be more like nuts and crisps and a glass of wine in the office –but it’s time to relax, have a bit of fun and forget about work.
So this is a timely warning for everyone, the organisers and the people who will go: Be careful at the work Christmas party. When it’s all being
picked apart in the cold light of January, you don’t want to figure in the gossip or the caseload of a legal practice.
Ashlie Turner, who is Managing Director of Magenta HR in Edinburgh, explains: “Employers have a fine line to tread by hosting the office Christmas party as a thanks to staff whilst proactively ensuring staff conduct is deemed acceptable so they don’t find themselves vicariously liable for any inappropriate actions by their employees.
“The most likely claims to arise are harassment or discrimination claims. The Equality Act 2010 which came into force last October states the
definition of harassment as an individual engaging in unwanted conduct related to a relevant ‘protected characteristic’ that has the purpose or effect of violating another individual’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. The relevant
protected characteristics for harassment are age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.”
Employment tribunals may well find that the party you organised or funded is legally within the course of your employment which makes you potentially liable for the action. If you can prove that you have taken adequate steps to show that you have done your best to prevent employees from committing these kinds of inappropriate acts at work, then you may have an adequate defence.
Ashlie Turner describes the kinds of actions employers need to have taken: “These steps may include providing regular awareness training on equal
opportunities and bullying and harassment policies and some organisations go as far as including details of appropriate behaviour, conduct and consequences of non-compliance when sending invitations to staff for the office party.”
Covering your back is one thing, but disasters still happen as Ms Turner explains: “Last Christmas I was told of a group of eight graduate management trainees who were set the task of organising their Edinburgh office Christmas party. The trainees had only been with the company a matter of weeks and this was the first event they had been involved in which would be attended by all office staff.
“Two of the trainees were tasked with organising the entertainment and through excitement or sheer naivety, they booked a male stripper. The stripper turned up relatively early in the evening, unfortunately before most people were in full party swing, and performed an X-rated act on the dance floor along with one of the trainees.
“She at this point gave an Oscar winning performance whilst completely oblivious to the reaction of her colleagues. Meanwhile, the remaining trainees were sobbing in the bathroom at the realisation their short-lived careers were now doomed.”
"Another way in which employers can be caught out is where someone injures someone else accidentally. One girl broke her boss’s wrist at an
Edinburgh office party while trying to force him to dance. Matters could have been a whole lot worse if this had been a colleague rather than the business’s owner. In that situation, the injury would have been classed as having happened at work and the employer could have been held indirectly responsible.
“Despite risking their reputation as a party pooper,” adds Ms Turner, “it’s worth employers taking all reasonable steps to ensure that employees do not engage in unlawful conduct by providing clear guidance as to what is and isn’t acceptable behavior - and of course, wish their staff a very merry Christmas!”
MAGGIE STANFIELD, Published 15 December 2011 www.writtenwords.eu