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Christmas Parties: An Employer’s Guide To Avoiding The Hangover

Christmas Parties: An Employer’s Guide To Avoiding The Hangover

It’s an all too familiar scenario for many of us: wake up, the room spinning, feeling a little more delicate than usual after one too many at the work Christmas party, as you wonder what exactly did happen last night? Come Monday morning – back to work; back to reality...what’s awaiting you?

According to a new poll published by the Trade Unions Congress, more than one in ten workers who have attended a work Christmas party admit embarrassing themselves in front of their boss, one in 11 workers has thrown up and one in 12 has revealed something embarrassing about themselves to a colleague. Sound familiar?

But for employers, public humility and the undying effects of too much alcohol might not be the only problem they face the morning after the night before – what about the legal hangover? Once the party’s over, everyone sobers up and returns to work, how should you approach any HR problems which have stemmed from the antics at the Christmas party?

Where an office party has taken place, even if it is outside of the workplace or even if you have merely handed over cash to allow staff to go out and have a good time, the legal consequences are no different than they would be on any given day, during normal working hours. An employee gathering such as this will be viewed as an “extension of the workplace” in the eyes of the law. And that means that employers may be held responsible for, and will most certainly have to deal with, any incidents stemming from them. It might be a claim for harassment or discrimination by a colleague whose boss was rather ‘hands on’ at the party. Or you may have a disciplinary investigation to carry out for all manner of misconduct (at worst we have dealt with cases involving assault and police intervention.)

It is essential that you deal with any complaints swiftly and seriously, taking into account the guidance of the ACAS Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures. Failure to do so could result in an even bigger headache – dealing with a claim in an employment tribunal.

Any aftermath of an office party must be dealt with fairly, in line with the company disciplinary procedure. Treat it seriously, but don’t over-react. Does the “punishment meet the crime”, so to speak? A key consideration is consistency. Consider the level of sanction that has been imposed on other employees in the company in similar circumstances before. In a recent case, an office party got out of hand when, after drinking for much of the morning leading up to the event, one employee then punched another in the face. After being punched, the other employee left the party only to retaliate with threatening texts thereafter. Here, it was not unreasonable for the employer to treat the deliberate punch in the face differently to the retaliatory texts sent after. Each case turns on its facts and the Tribunal will examine whether they are “truly parallel” in their circumstances.

The increasing use of social media adds yet another bauble to the Christmas tree. It is tempting for employees to use the sites to upload photos of, or make comments about colleagues’ behaviour at a work event. This could result in disciplinary and grievance issues if the subject of the photo sobers up and realises that dancing on the table probably wasn’t their finest moment, and takes offence. Post-party gossip can also aggravate issues, as working relationships become fragile. In serious cases, such activities might even bring your name into disrepute. Each year we see cases involving Clarkson-esque ‘fracas’ at office parties and reputation management is often integral to the advice that we provide alongside the HR intervention.

Before you start thinking that Scrooge had the right idea and decide to cancel Christmas altogether in the future, remember that social events are important and valued by employees – they boost morale, making employees feel valued and increase loyalty in the business. The most important thing to remember is to keep a sense of perspective. Christmas is no different to any other time of year, and employees will get into mischief now and again. Provided you manage the situations effectively, everyone will have a Merry Christmas.

Leigh McDonald
Trainee Solicitor

This article was published in The Herald on Monday 21 December 2015. To view the article click here.

LChalmers