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Christmas parties: The employer’s minefield

It is (nearly) Christmas and it is party time…

Most employers now understand that the office Christmas parties will be considered to be on work time and so employers will be responsible for the actions of their employees. As we all know, with high spirits comes a much higher risk of staff acting inappropriately towards their colleagues.

As a result, it is very important that you plan your Christmas parties to minimise the risk of staff misconduct and grievances.

This article aims to help you avoid these issues by:

  • highlighting the types of grievances staff may have; and
  • showing you how to minimise the risk of issues arising.

It is a party so why would staff have grievances?

The main cause of grievances at Christmas parties is when a member of staff feels that their employer, or a colleague, has discriminated against them. Typically, this happens when they feel unfairly treated or harassed due to their:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender assignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

If a member of staff feels discriminated against at your Christmas parties they can take the issue to Employment Tribunal. They could then be awarded compensation for any financial loss they have suffered as well as for injury to feelings.

How can you minimise this risk?

To help you avoid such a bad start to 2014, we have put together some suggestions for you to consider:

  • Do not make attendance at your Christmas parties compulsory. It may clash with non-Christian religious dates, giving some employees an argument for discrimination on religious grounds.  Compulsory attendance may also amount to sex discrimination if a proportion of your female staff are the main childcare providers.
  • Don’t forget to invite any employees who are currently on maternity/paternity/adoption leave to avoid a claim for discrimination.
  • Remember that all employees have a right to equal treatment so invite them all, including fixed-term workers and part-time staff.
  • Don’t forget your employees who are off on long-term sick.  It would be wrong to presume that just because they are not well enough to attend work that they would not feel able to meet with colleagues in a more social capacity.  Equally, however, respect that they may not feel well enough to attend the Christmas parties.
  • If you have under 18s working for you consider where you hold the party.  If you decide to hold it at a bar where no under 18s are allowed this may be age discrimination.  If there is no age restriction at the venue, remind them they should not be drinking alcohol.
  • Whilst most venues nowadays will be fully accessible for any disabled employees, bear in mind that disabled employees must not be treated less favourably and ought to be given the same opportunity as non-disabled employees to attend.
  • Before the event, remind staff about company policies concerning Discrimination, Bullying and Harassment and Equal Opportunities. Forewarn them that inappropriate behaviour at the Christmas parties will be disciplined in the same way as during work hours.
  • If you are providing drinks and/or food bear in mind the need to cater for people who don’t drink alcohol or who have dietary restrictions. Such requirements may be because of religious, cultural, medical or personal reasons.
  • Avoid encouraging (and fuelling) drunken antics (which might inadvertently lead to misconduct). If you provide free drinks for your staff, consider limiting the amount and ensure that the bartenders at the venue are vigilant and do not serve already intoxicated employees. It is sensible to at least one member of the management team to remain sober enough to keep an eye on what is happening and being prepared to intervene if a situation looks perilous.
  • Bear in mind that alcohol can often fuel unwanted sexual advances and this could constitute sexual harassment.  Employers must ensure that they are not seen as condoning such behaviour and if they witness anything on the night, should take action.

Be mindful of the above and you can help ensure the evening is fun for all (as well as reducing the risk of a Tribunal claim).

Need more advice?

For a confidential chat about how to plan effectively for Christmas parties feel free to contact our Employment & HR team.  If you already have your party planned we hope you have an enjoyable time which is memorable for the right reasons!

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