It is that time of year again…Christmas party season is underway. Christmas 2020 was a write off for many, so there have been high hopes for the 2021 parties! Some changes may have been made given the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and employers are keeping a close eye on guidance. Members of staff are also being invited to Christmas events from other organisations.
It is traditionally the time of year when employees are at their most relaxed (and in some circumstances with the consumption of alcohol) a number of thorny issues or questions arise. It can be a busy time for employment lawyers.
Does, for example, a suspended Employee have the right to attend the office Christmas party?
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 the said individual being required to remain away from the Christmas party which is, after all, a work social event? If the individual who is in a customer facing role has been suspended because for example of a customer complaint and which is not generally related to his conduct, then the employer may have little or no grounds to justify asking the individual to stay away from the party. Conversely, 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 come to that attend any other social event connected with his employment.
What should an employer do if a member of staff raises a concern with regards to another employee’s behaviour at the Christmas party?
First and foremost, an employer should stay impartial and keep calm – irrational or spur of the moment decisions can be damaging. An employer should focus and deal with the facts. Turn to your grievance policy and undertake an investigation, following the relevant policy. If the policy is departed from, a note as to why such departure was required should be recorded. Carry out the necessary interviews, whilst maintaining the required level of confidentiality. Having undertaken such investigation, an informed decision should be made and if necessary disciplinary action should follow against the other employee or employees in questions. Thought will also be required at to suspending the employee depending upon the allegations raised against him or her and weather a fair investigation can be undertaken with the individual(s) remaining in the workplace.
Employers should also check their staff handbooks. Generally speaking, you would expect to see a policy in the handbook 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 outside of normal working hours. This will assist if disciplinary action is required and that the employee is clearly aware of what is expected from him or her.
Employers should be aware that, generally speaking, they can be held vicariously 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 levels of alcohol intake in order to prevent any issues arising in the first place, for example discrimination or harassment claims. In order to try and overcome being vicariously liable for the acts of your employees, it is important that you can show that you have provided equality training to staff, that there is an equality policy, that there is an effective and robust grievance process and an email notification or some other method of communication is sent to staff on a yearly basis, reminding them of their obligations and the equality policy, which staff should be encouraged to read again.
Further, it would be prudent that as an employer, there is a clear policy which has been communicated in advance setting 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 then others, for example an ill thought out secret Santa gift or a very close to the mark joke.
It is also common for members of staff to be invited to another organisation’s Christmas parties. Misbehaving staff at other firm’s parties has the potential to damage the relationship between businesses and sometimes irreparably. Whilst you may subsequently decide to bring disciplinary action against such individual’s, and which may lead to their ultimate dismissal, not only have you had to go through the time and expenses of a disciplinary policy but the business relationship with the other organisation has already damaged.
Taking the right steps now and having the right polices in place, effectively communicated is key and time well spent.
For more information please contact our employment team here.
This article was written by Alex Pearce, Senior Associate in the Employment Law Team at Pinney Talfourd LLP Solicitors. The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. Specific legal advice should be taken on each individual matter. This article is based on the law as of December 2021.