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What’s the answer? Seasonal excesses

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Jenny Hart gets expert advice this week on how to manage employment law problems associated with seasonal excesses.



The question:
Christmas is approaching and both formal and informal social events during the festive season offer abundant opportunities for alcohol misuse. I’d really like to hear colleagues’ views on whether this is a common problem and about any examples of incidents they have had to cope with.

I’m also interested in their views on the best route to prevention.

Many thanks in anticipation.

Jerry Hart

The answers:
Nicholas Snowden, senior solicitor at Clarkslegal LLP
Merry Christmas
Problems at Christmas parties caused by high spirits and fuelled by alcohol consumption are common and every year ‘party pooping’ solicitors gleefully write about the perils. Nonetheless, as you have given me the opportunity to indulge in the practice, I will not pass it up.

There is good reason to be wary of Christmas parties from an employment law perspective. Every year many HR professionals in the UK are left with Christmas party ‘hangovers’, which can last far longer than a day.

The risks for employers are claims for unlawful discrimination (sex, race, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief), and/or harassment and unfair dismissal. Even before any claims are brought, an organisation can be significantly disrupted by investigations, disciplinary hearings and grievances.

There are also the potentially negative side effects of an incident on staff morale to consider.

What can be done to prevent the start of a sparkling new year being tarnished by the end of the last? Ultimately, unless you decide not to hold a Christmas party at all (which some businesses have done) or to hold an alcohol-free event (which is likely to go down like a lead balloon), the event will always create a heightened risk.

However, there are a number of steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of inappropriate behaviour taking place and give you a stronger hand if, despite your efforts, the worst happens and you have to deal with the consequences.

Firstly, as a general rule, and not just for Christmas, you should organise equal opportunities training for staff regularly (e.g. once a year). By doing so, and keeping a record of those who attend, if one of your employees does step out of line, you thereby give yourself the best chance of successfully defending any claims by arguing that you took ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent the discrimination.

Secondly, you should pull out your anti-discrimination policy, anti-harassment policy and any other policies that govern standards of behaviour expected from your staff and check that they are clearly drafted and up to date.

If they are not, you should review them. If they are, you should draw the attention of all staff to the policies and remind them, in general terms, that they should behave appropriately at the Christmas party.

If possible, it would also be a good idea to invite staff to a meeting to take them through the main points of the policies and highlight the risks for them, as individuals, of misbehaving at a work function, such as the Christmas party. This would include reminding them that in the eyes of the law, they are at work during a Christmas party.

This means that not only could they face disciplinary action if they misbehave, but if they subject any other member of staff to unlawful discrimination or harassment, as well as the company being liable, they could be held personally liable in law.

Thirdly, if possible, do not provide free alcohol. This does not stop you offering one free drink to all staff, but a free bar all night is a recipe for disaster and can weaken your position in dealing with inappropriate behaviour. This is because your decision to offer free alcohol could be seen as encouraging excessive drinking.

Finally, although even managers like to let their hair down at Christmas parties, they should still show the example to their subordinates. In doing so, it would be wise for them to keep an eye out for inappropriate behaviour during the evening, so that they can prevent any potential problems from escalating.

Nicholas Snowden can be contacted at [email protected]

Ray Silverstein, Partner at Browne Jacobson
Christmas wine selection
Whilst I’m sure you and your staff will have an enjoyable, incident-free festive season, you are right to give this issue some attention. It is indeed a possibility that alcohol misuse may cause problems, and that firms can be faced with legal headaches if Christmas parties are left to run wild.

I have personal knowledge of incidents at or following Christmas parties, ranging from food fights and punch-ups to complaints of sexual harassment even a disgruntled employee driving a bulldozer to his manager’s house and threatening to knock it down!

In the worst case scenario, employers could find themselves dealing with compensation claims from anyone assaulted, molested or harassed by a drunken employee at an office party. Similarly, if an accused employee were to be unfairly dismissed, this again could be the cause of a potentially substantial claim.

However, there are a few simple steps you can take to protect you and your staff, and hopefully avoid dampening the festive spirit!

  • Issue a memo reminding staff of the company’s disciplinary procedure in the light of any events which might be fuelled by excess on or off the premises during the festive season.

  • In the case of a staff Christmas party, remind staff that they are attending a work event where work policies and disciplinary procedures apply.

  • Limit the amount of alcohol on offer at staff events, especially if it is free.

  • Be cautious of timing – avoid extended periods of drinking.

  • Involve food or a sit-down meal where possible, to limit the effects of alcohol.

If these precautions are followed, you can hopefully be confident that you have taken action to protect the company and its staff – and enjoy the festive season with peace of mind!

Merry Christmas and a prosperous 2006.

Ray can be contacted at: [email protected]

***

HRZone highly recommends that any answers are taken as a starting point for guidance only.

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