While the Christmas party is a great opportunity for staff to socialise together and celebrate their achievements over the past year, and for employers to thank them for the work they do, it is important to remember that employers owe their employees certain obligations, even outside work, when they have organised the event themselves.
Employees should be aware that their conduct during the party must comply with normal standards and must not breach workplace equal treatment and anti-harassment policies. Employers can be vicariously liable for their employees’ behaviour at such functions, so it is important to be able to show that all reasonable steps have been taken to prevent behaviour that could give rise to such a claim. This includes making staff aware of the appropriate policies regarding conduct at work events and providing adequate training.
In order to prevent what should be a happy occasion from leading to recriminations or worse, an employer should take certain basic steps. Here are some of the more important ones:
- Try to make sure the date of any work event does not coincide with the dates of religious festivals;
- Carry out a risk assessment – this should include the venue and, in particular, the possible risks associated with serving alcohol. Making sure employees can get home safely is important, so consider hiring transport or providing taxis solely for this purpose if necessary. Ensure soft drinks are provided as an alternative to alcoholic drinks and that individual dietary requirements are catered for;
- Ensure that, if employees’ partners are invited, there is no discrimination with regard to who is included. Ensure also that reasonable adjustments are made to allow any disabled employee or partner to attend and that any employees absent on maternity leave or because of long-term sickness are included;
- Where possible, make sure that the arrangements accommodate the requirements of employees of different religions;
- Ensure that employees understand the difference between ‘banter’ and behaviour that could be considered to infringe the dignity of any person present. You may wish to appoint event supervisors to oversee the function, to whom staff can report any problems. If unwanted behaviour is observed, act quickly to prevent it from reoccurring and take prompt action if a complaint is received;
- Make sure that employees who are expected to attend work the next day understand that absence through over-indulgence is likely to be regarded as a disciplinary matter; and
- Make sure employees are aware that any illegal acts will not be tolerated.
The biggest problems that are likely to arise are that inappropriate behaviour may occur, especially if alcohol flows too freely, and that there may be conduct which members of a particular faith find objectionable.
Your firm’s contract of employment will probably deal with most or all of these issues. However, it is sensible to have a separate policy on what is expected of employees at workplace social events and to remind them of its contents in advance of any function.
For advice on any aspect of employee behaviour or contracts of employment, contact us.