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Christmas parties can be a minefield of misdemeanours.

Byline: Ian East

Ian East of Swansea- based solicitors John Collins & Partners examines some of the legal issues which can arise at office Christmas parties

ALTHOUGH we are fast approaching the season of goodwill, employers would do well to remember that many applications to the Employment Tribunal stem from incidents over the Christmas period.

Frequently these are cases concerning sexual harassment, which may lead to claims for sex discrimination and constructive dismissal.

A recent survey by Reed Accountancy Personnel showed that 84% of companies had allocated funds for a Christmas party. As well as being very much a tradition such parties are perceived as crucial for boosting staff morale. It would appear however that many members of staff take a different view.

In a survey of 1,000 employees conducted by the Daily Telegraph, 15% said they would avoid Christmas parties by pretending to be double-booked, 8% would take the day off and 7% would deliberately arrange a holiday to coincide with the staff party. Some 14% said they would rather clean their house than go to the party.

In our ever-more politically-correct and litigious society, long gone are the days of the drunken free-for-all, where the managing director told dirty jokes and the office letch would drag the secretaries under the mistletoe.

Employers remain vicariously liable for their employees even at Christmas. As such they are likely to be held liable for any acts of sexual harassment upon members of staff.

Claims stemming from such behaviour can attract substantial awards for injury to feelings, potentially running in to five figures. The potential for such liability for an employer was seen in 1999 in the case of Chief Constable of Lincolnshire v Stubbs. In this case the Employment Appeal Tribunal made it clear that liability exists even where the office party takes place off-site and out of normal hours.

Employers may consider the risk of consequent publicity to be even more problematic. Some reports are salutary; for example, John Williamson, the public relations manager of the Greater Manchester Police Force who advised police officers to avoid terms of endearment like 'love', 'pet' and 'dear', was dismissed following claims he sexually harassed four female colleagues.

Jim Hodgkinson, former head of the fashion firm New Look, was also fired after patting a colleague's bottom at a Christmas party.

Often employees are unconcerned about the consequences of their behaviour. The Daily Telegraph survey revealed that 59% of staff have seen work colleagues be sick at the Christmas party, 49% have been involved in an argument and 5% had confessed to throwing punches. Twenty per cent had been caught kissing a colleague, 15% had insulted their boss and 8% had handed in their notice.

Employers should therefore protect themselves against potential claims of sexual harassment. In order to do this they must take reasonable steps to prevent such harassment.

Senior executives should be advised to control the flow of alcohol and designate somebody who is responsible for monitoring the activities of the revellers. This person should be prepared to take an employee, or a guest, to one side and warn them.

If necessary, they should be prepared to ask the employee or guest to leave. All members of staff should be informed of that individual and told that any problems arising can be reported to him or her.

Staff should also be reminded, in advance, that the disciplinary rules still apply to them during the office party.

This should include highlighting the fact that excessive drinking, fighting, the use of illegal drugs and inappropriate sexual conduct will be considered to be acts of gross misconduct and might result in dismissal.

Such a warning will inevitably have a chilling effect on the celebrations but a balance must be struck. That may involve laying down some rules.

Other issues that should be considered are: does the time and the place of the party prevent some staff attending on racial or religious grounds? Accessibility issues cannot be ignored: can a disabled individual make it to the party location? Can they reasonably navigate the labyrinth of buffet tables?

An employer is probably under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to the Christmas party arrangements to accommodate all employees.

The issue of confidentiality should also not be ignored. Employees should be warned not to discuss specific company business, particularly with somebody from outside their department. Too many companies have seen trade secrets made public, or potential deals ruined, due to loose tongues at Christmas parties.

Working on the presumption that prevention is better than cure many of the above risks can be reduced if employees are regulated by an appropriate contract of employment.

This allows issues such as conduct and confidentiality to be dealt with clearly. Also the requirement in the Employment Rights Act 1996 (as amended by the 2002 Employment Act) imposing a duty to provide a written statement of particulars, including disciplinary and grievance procedures, is due to come in to force next year. Employers should therefore consider reviewing their standard contracts and staff handbooks.
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 22, 2003
Words:839
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