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Sunburn and sexual harassment: The office summer party

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office_partySalmonella sausages, sun stroke at midday, an ET claim for sexual harassment slapped on your desk. Annie Hayes reports on how to survive the office summer party.


When, where and how?

How to ensure acceptable conduct at office parties

  • Be aware that employers can be held vicariously liable for the actions of their employees at office parties, if those actions are deemed to have been committed in the course of employment.
  • Distinguish between those social events where there will probably be vicarious liability and social events that are unlikely to result in vicarious liability.
  • In advance of office parties, take all reasonably practicable steps to prevent employees from carrying out particular acts.
  • Provide a clear policy on the standards of behaviour expected at office parties and what kinds of behaviour are unacceptable.
  • At the office party itself, put two or three managers in charge of monitoring the activities of staff and their intake of alcohol.
  • Take whatever steps are possible to protect employees from third party harassment.
  • Source: XpertHR

    Peter Done, managing director of Peninsula Business Services, the personnel and employment law consultancy, is very clear about the potential pitfalls of throwing a summer bash and, whilst he admits they are a good way of boosting team morale, he says there is a lot to think about too.

    “Employers must first be aware that when an event is organised through the company, they are responsible for their employees’ health and safety and are liable to any legislation that would apply to the employee on any working day,” he explains.

    “This still applies even if the event is held out of normal working hours or at alternative premises. Employees are also liable to litigation proceedings following their actions at the event. This can include inappropriate behaviour and comments that they expose during the party.”

    Done warns that employees must be wary of their behaviour and employers must be careful not to leave themselves open to any litigation by preparing for the event as thoroughly as possible.

    Preparation includes deciding when to throw the party. Of course the elements may play their part and with the British weather to contend with, having a back up plan if it’s raining is a must.

    There’s also a decision to be made as to which day is most suitable. HR consultant Sandra Beale says, in reality, if the event is held mid-week employers need to be prepared for some ‘no shows’ the next day.

    “This could be tackled in two ways – by expecting this will happen and turning a blind eye for ‘fairness’ sake; or expecting it will happen and issuing a communication that ‘no shows’ will possibly be dealt with formally,” says Beale.

    Done suggests showing a willingness to compromise by implementing flexible start times the day after the night before.

    Of course, for most bosses running on skeleton staff or if paying out for temporary cover is not an option, many employers will go for a Friday or a date where the party doesn’t interrupt regular working hours.

    Emma Cohen, solicitor for PJH Law, says: “Consider having the party on a Friday (or at least near the end of the week). Make clear what the expectations are regarding attendance the next day in the email sent out beforehand.”

    Cohen reminds employers to invite all staff including those on maternity leave and advises: “Ensure you take into account any disabilities. Try to organise at a time that is not going to adversely affect you, for example employees who collect children from school. Make it clear whether the invitation is for employees only or spouses/partners and children etc.”

    Playing safe

    Mark Wheeler, senior press officer for the Health and Safety Executive, says duty of care responsibilities are bound by the caveat for reasonable practicability. Like many employment laws, this can cause problems for employers deciding who is liable – take, for example, holding an event offsite where the fixtures and fittings are out of the control of the employer.

    Wheeler largely believes that liability goes in the third party direction: “If you have a professional caterer they are in charge of the food, not the employer.” The key, says Wheeler, is ensuring there is always some dialogue in place with the venue organisers and the client.

    Done also recommends employers to stick meticulously to health and safety guidelines, including ensuring that there is appropriate signage throughout the venue highlighting toilet, rest and refreshment areas.

    “Make clear what the expectations are regarding attendance the next day in the email sent out beforehand.”

    Emma Cohen, PJH Law

    “This should still be the case even if the party is to be held in the office area, to protect against claims from those who attend and are unaware of the location of facilities,” he says. “All potential hazards should be removed beforehand. For those which cannot be removed, warning signs must be put in place to warn attendants of the potential danger. Planning is key when organising an event.”

    Like the Christmas party, the supply of alcohol can also throw up dangers. Limiting the supply of free alcohol can help to control behaviours.

    Beale highlights a further concern – the nature of the business: “If, for example, there are lots of drivers (lorry, van, etc) there is the need to communicate the fact that an excessive intake of alcohol could mean that up to mid morning the next day someone could still be under the influence.

    “If companies do not allow their drivers to drive for work purposes until after this time the next day this will impact on productivity if it is a working day, but will safeguard key staff members. Advice in a written communication should be provided.”

    Beale adds that problems caused by excessive alcohol consumption, including fighting, should be dealt with by the disciplinary policy. Prior to this, Cohen says, the first course of action is to physically remove the person from the situation and ask them to go home if they’re well enough to do so.

    “Bear in mind that if the behaviour is closely related to a person’s employment it can be treated as an extension of their employment and depending on the behaviour could be gross misconduct for which an employee may be summarily dismissed. Also bear in mind that employers can be liable for the sexual harassment committed by their employees. However, in our experience behaviour that serious is unusual.”

    Of course, most employers can prevent things turning ugly by communicating expected standards of behaviour before the party kicks-off.

    Communicate, communicate, communicate

    Done encourages employers to write up a detailed list of rules and regulations that must be adhered to by staff that are attending.

    “This should outline expected behavioural standards as well as information regarding facilities that are available and those which are not,” he remarks. “Employees attending should each be given a copy and must be informed that they are responsible for any guests they bring. It would be an advantage to have someone regulating proceedings at the party and available to assist with any matters during the event that may arise.”

    “It would be an advantage to have someone regulating proceedings at the party and available to assist with any matters during the event that may arise.”

    Peter Done, Peninsula Business Services

    It shouldn’t all be doom and gloom and threatening rants, however, says Beale, who adds that it is also important to give any written communication a positive slant detailing why the company is providing the event.

    Cohen agrees and says that it’s vital to convey that everyone should enjoy themselves with the proviso of adhering to standards of behaviour.

    As well as outlining the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption, Cohen suggests detailing what dress should be worn – bikini-clad employees might not always be appropriate. As a further consideration, Cohen suggests looking at how to protect employees from the sun if the event is taking place outside. Employees could, for example, be advised to bring sun hats and sun screen and encouraged to drink plenty of water.

    For further advice on how to survive the office party, together with case law examples, see this white paper from XpertHR.

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    Annie Hayes

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