Festive cheer, legal fear

Exercise caution at the work Christmas party, says Tina, because serious legal issues could occur.

SUMMER is now over, and as we enter the final few months of 2019, businesses will soon begin planning their festive celebrations, rewarding colleagues for their hard work this year.

It’s an occasion many people look forward to, as the event marks the countdown to Christmas and gives workers the opportunity to enjoy a few drinks in a relaxed social environment.  

However, a few drinks can quickly escalate into an alcohol-fuelled session, which can increase the likelihood of serious legal issues occurring.

While no-one wants to play the Grinch, it’s worth reminding colleagues that the Christmas party is essentially an extension of the workplace and the same rules and expectations apply.

The potential problems
Although the party may take place outside of the workplace and normal office hours, there remains the risk that an employer will be liable for the actions of its staff.

Unfortunately, consuming high volumes of alcohol can be the catalyst for serious legal issues, with incidents of discrimination or harassment not uncommon – people can sometimes act out of character in a way they would never dream of when sober.

Eager at first to calm any workplace nerves, the availability of alcohol and the relaxed social environment can soon see festivities spill over, and sexual harassment is usually the most common problem at one of these events.

Accusations of discrimination on the grounds of age, race or sexual orientation can also occur – I’m sure we can all picture the type of unsavoury scenario described.

Protect your organisation
After a few too many drinks, emotions can become heightened and this can create all sorts of issues when out with work colleagues.

Any existing tensions can boil over, as aggrieved individuals confront one another, causing a full-blown verbal or physical confrontation to ensue.

This type of unacceptable behaviour could lead to claims for potentially unlimited compensation, not to mention the significant amount of time and effort senior management must invest into the subsequent investigation and disciplinary process.

If the back to work blues weren’t already bad enough in January, these anxieties can be enhanced when employment lawyers are called to deal with an incident from the Christmas party.

There are several steps that organisations should follow to avoid becoming that client:

Don’t leave anybody out – every member of staff should be invited to the Christmas party, regardless of whether they are ill or on leave, as not doing so could result in claims of discrimination;

When employees can bring partners, be sure not to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and don’t assume all partners will be of the opposite sex;

Ensure that you have an equal opportunities/anti-harassment policy in place;

Tell employees to enjoy themselves and have a good time, but remind them that inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated and could result in disciplinary action;

Consider limiting the bar tab. Providing limitless amounts of alcohol to employees, without monitoring who is drinking what is not only irresponsible, it can also increase the likelihood of a serious issue occurring.

Festive gifts or bribery?
It’s important organisations keep a close eye on the gifts they purchase for other clients and businesses, as there could be potential liability under the Bribery Act 2010.

Failing to prevent bribery in the workplace is strict liability, and employers must show that it has ‘adequate procedures’ in place to successfully defend against such a case.

Of course, reasonable gifts and hospitality, such as a hamper or invitation to lunch, should not be a problem, but if employees are suddenly flown out for a sunny Christmas in the Bahamas, then questions will quickly be raised!

Exercise caution when organising
If you have been given the task of organising the work Christmas party, then it’s important to exercise caution when booking the event.

It may be tempting to go all out and impress colleagues by arranging a free bar in a venue that stays open until the early hours, however by doing this you are encouraging staff to drink excessively.

Remember, an organisation has a responsibility to look after the wellbeing of its staff, not to mention its own reputation, so providing guests with limitless alcohol wouldn’t be a smart move.

Avoid the post-party dread…
Many major legal issues faced after a work Christmas party can be easily avoided – the vast majority stem from bad choices made by an organisation and its employees.

In some serious cases, these drunken actions can result in a claim being brought against the company or person involved, so it’s important to remind people of their responsibilities beforehand.

If you have a Christmas party coming up and require legal guidance or advice, contact an experienced team of lawyers for assistance.
01926 884687