The office Christmas party is traditionally a time when employees are at their most relaxed; especially when the consumption of alcohol is on the cards. As a result of this, a number of potentially difficult issues can arise for employers.
Our Employment Solicitor Alex Pearce has rounded up his top tips for employers during the festive period to ensure that the Christmas cheer is evident for everyone.
The simple answer is maybe. Employers should give careful thought as to the reason why the individual was suspended in the first place. Does that reason justify said individual being required to remain away from the Christmas party which is, after all, a work social event? If the individual is in a customer-facing role and was suspended because of an external customer complaint, which was generally not related to his conduct, then the employer may have little or no grounds to justify asking the individual to stay away from a social event. Equally, if an allegation of harassment has been made, then it would be reasonable for the employer to take a view that the suspended employee shouldn’t attend the office Christmas party, or indeed attend any other social event connected with their employment.
First and foremost, an employer should stay impartial and keep calm; irrational or spur of the moment decisions can prove disastrous. It is recommended to initially focus and deal with the facts. Turn to your grievance policy and undertake an investigation as soon as it is plausible, making sure to follow the relevant policy. Carry out the necessary interviews whilst maintaining the required level of confidentiality. Having undertaken such an investigation, an informed decision should be made and, if necessary, disciplinary action should follow against the other employee or employees in question. Thought will also be required as to suspending the employee depending upon the allegations raised against him or her, and whether a fair investigation can be undertaken with the individual(s) remaining in the workplace.
Employers should also check their staff handbooks before the commencement of an office Christmas party. Generally speaking, you would expect to see a policy which deals with the consumption of alcohol and specific reference to events outside of the workplace which are considered to be at work, regardless of the location and the fact that they’re outside of normal working hours. This will assist if disciplinary action is required and that the employee is clearly aware of what is expected of them.
Employers should be aware that, generally speaking, they can be held liable for the actions of their employees at Christmas parties. It is therefore advisable that a number of managers are tasked with monitoring people’s behaviour and the levels of alcohol taken by staff in order to prevent any issues arising in the first place.
It would be wise to ensure that there is a clear policy communicated in advance that sets out the standard of behaviour expected, and what kinds of behaviour are unacceptable - for example, harassment. Sexual harassment can take many different forms, some less obvious than others. An ill-thought-out secret Santa gift or a very ‘close to the mark’ joke can be construed by some as harassment.
It is also common for members of your organisation to be invited to an external work Christmas party. Individuals that misbehave at these have the potential to damage relationships between businesses - sometimes irreparably. Whilst you may decide to bring disciplinary action against such individuals (which may lead to their ultimate dismissal), not only have you had to go through the time and expenses of a disciplinary procedure, but the business relationship with the other organisation has already been irrevocably damaged.
Taking the time to ensure that the right steps and policies are in place now, and have been effectively communicated to all employees is key for a smooth journey throughout the festive period.