With Christmas around the corner, and festivities on the horizon, it's time to dust off those garish knitted jumpers and celebrate at the Annual Office Party. With wine usually flowing and inhibitions occasionally lowered, these employer-organised unfortunately have the potential to generate a number of employment law issues, including: harassment, discrimination, discipline and grievances.
In order to substitute a costly legal hangover with a (should be) trouble-free party, the make-up of the workforce should always be taken into account prior to the occasion. So as to avoid any discrimination, the venue, requirements and timings should always be considered and well thought out. Unsurprisingly, loud drink-fuelled parties will not be for everyone, so holding the celebration in a restaurant or hotel will provide a space to sit down and chat, whilst the latter will also offer a dance space to meet everyone's needs.
Although employers will not want to dampen the festive spirit, in order to avoid any repercussions, clear and coherent policies on conduct should be identified prior to the event. High alcohol consumption can often spell trouble so, to avoid uninhibited employees, this needs to be managed. An office party is, after all, an extension of the office environment so it is important to remember that employees are still accountable for their actions - even though they are not technically 'at work'. This means that employers remain responsible for the conduct of their staff and they will most likely be liable should anything go wrong. Failure to properly address any complaint(s) arising from the event could actually give an employee grounds to bring a claim to court. This is quite clearly unwarranted.
In the case of MBNA Ltd. v Jones, an incident at an office party went all the way to the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) following disparity in treatment between two offending employees. Whilst one was dismissed after throwing a punch at a co-worker, the colleague who received the thump proceeded to send abusive and threatening text messages but only received a final written warning. Though the final appeal found in favour of the employers and ruled that they had acted reasonably, the costs and disruptions surrounding the whole ordeal were extensive, and serve as a powerful reminder to companies who decide to take short-cuts round the disciplinary proceedings.
It is rare for misconduct like this to reach the EAT, but as many HR professionals will corroborate, the broad facts of this case are certainly not uncommon. MBNA v Jones has demonstrated the significance of taking steps to minimise Christmas Party issues, and should misbehaviour regrettably occur between two parties, there must be clear reasoning behind any distinctions, particularly around level of sanction.
Whilst this shouldn't serve as a deterrent to attend the Christmas party, this article should just act as an aide-mémoire to ensure that all are aware of their accountability for any misconduct at the festive event – it is after all the company's duty to safeguard all employees.
T'was the night before Christmas, when the office party was due,
Laughing and joking, but that's nothing new,
The staff round the table were waiting to be fed
When all of a sudden, something wicked was said
The table fell silent, and shock filled the air
Up stood the victim who then hurled a chair
Shouting and squabbling, soon predictably ensued
'It was her' he screamed - 'it was her that was rude!'
The party became hectic and was hastily aborted
The incident noted down, it was quickly reported
'We're out of the office – so what?!', they said with a smirk
'It doesn't matter' held the Boss 'behave like you're at work'
'No discrimination, no abuse, no cruelty or assault,
You both did wrong and you're both at fault'
Investigations and inquiries must now be performed
Perhaps this wouldn't have happened if they were informed
Of regulations and conduct that must be abided
This type of behaviour will leave most divided
Discipline action, may be brought to both sides
It's up to HR whether a suspension is applied.
It is important to note: actions are accountable
And the sanction that follows may not be bountiful
So remember remember to make the rules clear
But Merry Christmas to all, and a happy new year!
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