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The Office Party – fun or folly?

Published 19 December 2012

As the festive season approaches, so does the time for office parties with their annual cocktail of fun mixed with risk. Employment law partner at Berg, Nigel Crebbin, looks at what employers can do to limit the dangers.

The office party is likely to be viewed by a Court or Employment Tribunal as a workplace event, irrespective of where it actually takes place. This means that if any ill-advised employee decides to behave in a discriminatory or harassing way toward a colleague, then as their employer you could be liable for damages, unless before the party you took reasonable steps to avoid that sort of behaviour occurring. Especially with alcohol being drunk, office parties can lead to employees behaving in a way that normally they would not do and otherwise hidden feelings of attraction or hostility can sometimes come to the fore in a very unwelcome way. It’s therefore wise in advance of the office party to put in place a staff policy which makes clear to your employees what standards of conduct they are required to keep to and it’s imperative once you draft that policy to make sure that your staff are aware of it. Having a well drafted policy in place and drawing attention to it will help you in your defence to a discrimination or harassment claim should one unfortunately arrive in the New Year.

It’s also advisable to remind employees before the annual party that they need to think in advance about their travel arrangements and make plans as to how they are going to get home, especially if they have had a drink. It’s also worth reminding employees that while everyone knows that alcohol is likely to be consumed, employees are expected, both for their own safety and for that of their colleagues, to keep within reasonable limits.

It’s also a good idea, if you are booking entertainment for the party, to make sure that you know in advance the sort of act you are hiring and that it’s not one which is likely to cause offence to any of your employees. Perhaps that “edgy and controversial” comedian may not be a good idea.

Finally, if someone fails to arrive for work on the day after the party, it’s best to avoid knee-jerk reactions and hasty disciplinary penalties. While their absence may of course be suspicious and could be linked to over-indulgence, it’s important to remember the need to follow fair and proper disciplinary procedures before coming to any decision to take disciplinary action.

No-one wants to be a Scrooge at this time of year, but it’s worthwhile as party time approaches making sure that you have done all you reasonably can as an employer to safeguard both your staff and your business. Making the right preparations, both in advance of the party and to prepare for how you will deal with any possible aftermath, could help you have a much happier New Year.

(The information and opinions contained in this article are not intended to be comprehensive, nor to provide legal advice. No responsibility for its accuracy or correctness is assumed by Berg or any of its partners or employees. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking, or refraining from taking, any action as a result of this article.)

Nigel Crebbin
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Berg Solicitors
0161 817 2817

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