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Ask the expert: Inappropriate behaviour at a Christmas party


Ask the expertA manager acted inappropriately at the office Christmas party last month, due to the amount of alcohol he consumed. Esther Smith and Martin Brewer advise on what disciplinary action to take now.

The question:

A manager in my business acted erratically at our Christmas party due to a quantity of alcohol. This consisted of several lewd comments to female members of staff as well as dancing on tables. There have also been unfounded accusations that this person may have said it would be funny to place something in somebody’s drink.

The manager is an asset to the company and has increased turnover by 30% in this 1st annum since the start date. I feel that other managers may have it in for this individual so I really want to be careful how much is taken as word, however, not all comments are from managers who disapproved of the behaviour have been made visible to all. I would say that at no point was it violent in any way, nor were any comments followed up. The individual acted completely out of character and has no recollection of the entire evening – whether this is good or bad I have no idea as I have not encountered this before. What I do know is that we all act in a way which we wish we could take back at some point in life and I believe that this is one of those instances for this particular individual.

What would be the best way forward with this? And what are the legal standpoints regarding disciplinary on this particular subject? The individual has been suspended for the next 72 hours while we build our case. Any advice will be well received.

Legal advice:

Esther Smith, partner, Thomas Eggar

Sadly such behaviour is not uncommon at Christmas parties. I think that you should certainly be investigating this matter with a view to disciplinary action of some level, but depending on what your investigation throws up you may or may not decide to continue with the disciplinary action.

I doubt that we would be looking at a dismissal here, as whilst he may have been a bit foolish, he has not done anything offensive or unforgivable. As with any disciplinary action, you should be making a decision on the appropriate outcome depending on what your investigation demonstrates. You do not need to have categorical proof that he has done something wrong, just a reasonable belief based on your investigation.

It may be that you feel it appropriate to simply give this manager a ‘slap on the wrist’ rather than a warning, but you can only really make this decision once you have investigated and got a real and unbiased view of what happened on the night.

Esther Smith is a partner in Thomas Eggar’s Employment Law Unit. For further information, please visit Thomas Eggar.

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Martin Brewer, partner, Mills & Reeve

The only way forward is to carry out a swift investigation. First you must identify specific allegations to investigate. So, for example, an allegation that this person may have said: “It would be funny to place something in somebody’s drink” is not really an allegation since, of itself, it can’t amount to wrongdoing. But, alleged lewd comments must be investigated and, if proved, may result in a warning and advice, perhaps even some equal opportunities training.

These allegations certainly don’t sound like something for which a manger should be dismissed, particularly if they are out of character and are a first offence (depending on how ‘lewd’ they were of course). In my view, even suspension could be an over-reaction as it’s not necessary to suspend in such a case (unless the manager in some way represents a threat).

Of more concern to you should be your suggestion that what underlies this is that other managers may have it in for this particular manager. This suggests a breakdown in relationships which, if not nipped in the bud, can be very destructive to a business. So instead of simply investigating allegations against the manager concerned, I suggest you carry out an investigation into relationships amongst the managers involved in this in general, to see if they can be repaired before the breakdown becomes irrevocable.

Martin Brewer can be contacted at [email protected] . For further information, please visit Mills & Reeve.

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