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Avoiding the christmas party from hell

Make sure you don’t regret your actions

Christmas parties are notorious for copious amounts of alcohol, inappropriate behaviour and nights that are memorable – sometimes for all the wrong reasons.

A reminisce over past Christmas parties, recorded in the office photograph album, will say it all. What was once an occasion where indiscretions were at best something to brag about and at worst, all but forgiven within a week, is fast turning into a launch pad for Employment Tribunal claims.

Employees are ‘in the course of their employment’ at the office party, even when this takes place outside office hours. The employer is responsible not only to ensure the health and safety of employees but also for their conduct.  At the risk of spoiling the festive cheer, employers facing the headache of the office party should know the risks and take steps to reduce them.

Reminding employees in advance of the conduct expected of them at the office party is a good starting point.  We are all too well aware that excessive drinking impairs judgement and lowers inhibitions. However, compliance with office rules can be a struggle following consumption of the pre-dinner drinks and quickly forgotten by some as the evening progresses.  To avoid alcohol-fuelled incidents of inappropriate behaviour at the office party, the amount of free alcohol available should be limited and soft drinks made easily available.

Resentment over work related issues often surface whilst under the influence of alcohol.  Many are tempted to tell their bosses what they really think of them. Worse still is when a drunken spouse or partner decides to speak to your boss on your behalf to air your grievances.  Such situations can easily escalate into physical violence. It would be advisable to have a manager who is not drinking on alert to nip any such unruly behaviour in the bud.

It is not just employees that need to be careful at the office party.  In Judge v Crown Leisure, a manager told an employee that within two years he would earn as much as a colleague, which in effect meant that he would double his salary.  When this did not happen the employee complained to the Employment Tribunal. Whilst the Tribunal held that the manager did not intend to enter into a legally binding contractual arrangement, the case reached the Employment Appeal Tribunal, which no doubt caused the employer considerable inconvenience and expense.

Then there is the issue of sexual tensions, which invariably manifest themselves at the office party.  Some guidance suggests that mistletoe should be avoided, but perhaps this is taking matters too far.  Jokes aside, sexual or derogatory comments that one person or group may find amusing, may cause offence to another and if not dealt with appropriately by the employer, may lead to Employment Tribunal claims.

When despite the best intentions it all goes wrong, employers should have in place a fair procedure to investigate and deal with any grievances or disciplinary issues arising out of office parties.  In Nixon v Ross Coates Solicitors, Ms Nixon brought a claim for constructive unfair dismissal against her employer, Ross Coates Solicitors. She had been seen at the office party kissing another employee and going to a hotel room with him.  Later she announced at work that she was pregnant.  The identity of the father of her child was the subject of speculation and gossip at work, perpetrated by the HR manager.  Ms Nixon raised a grievance concerning these matters and the employer failed to deal with it appropriately, which resulted in her claim for unfair dismissal being successful.

But it doesn’t end there. Employers are potentially responsible for employees’ conduct after leaving the office party.  Anyone who has consumed alcohol should not be permitted to drive home and consideration should be given to laying on taxis or buses. And what if a hung-over employee fails to turn up for work the next day?

Christmas parties are all about boosting staff morale and making them feel appreciated. The idea is to have fun and celebrate all the hard work employees have put in over the year.  With a little careful planning, it is possible to avoid the Christmas party from hell.

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