Employers are responsible for the conduct of their Employees during the 'course of employment' which can mean off the premises and outside of work hours e.g. the Christmas party!
It often shocks both employers and employees to discover that an employer is responsible for the acts of its employees that are ‘performed’ during the ‘course of employment’.
Although a Christmas party may occur outside of normal working hours, it is still regarded as a work event and actions of individuals at an office party would be considered as performed during employment. When alcohol is consumed, and inhibitions are reduced, this could, and often does, result in standards of conduct decreasing; and what someone may deem harmless ‘banter’ or ‘a joke’, another could deem discriminatory treatment, or harassment, subsequently resulting in the utilisation of an employer’s grievance and disciplinary process in the New Year; not necessarily how one would wish to start the year as they mean to go on!
Therefore, it is important that both employers and employees are aware of the standards of conduct acceptable at Christmas parties. Despite the festive atmosphere, and whilst no-one would welcome the nickname of ‘The Grinch’ or ‘Scrooge’, in summary, the following would be advisable:
1. Prior to the party, the employer should issue to its employees a summarised ‘Code of Conduct’ document, clearly setting out the boundaries of behaviour that is acceptable at the party, and notifying the employees that should they fail to adhere to same, this could potentially result in disciplinary action. Reference should be made to the company’s disciplinary policy in this regard and managers should keep a watchful eye on their employees at the party to ensure behavioural standards do not slip;
2. Employers should limit the amount of alcohol available and ensure that non-alcohol beverages are provided, particularly if the party is taking place on company premises (i.e. the office). This could curb excessive alcohol consumption and potentially avoid allegations of religious discrimination from those individuals who do not consume alcohol on religious grounds;
3. Ensure that the party premises are accessible by all attending, avoiding the risk of a disability discrimination allegation;
4. Ban the use of mistletoe, reducing the risk of sexual harassment allegations;
5. If partners of employees are invited, this should include same-sex partners, to avoid an allegation of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation; and
6. Ensure the party is taking place at a time that does not substantially disadvantage employees of a particular group (i.e. if the party was to take place on a Friday night, this could disadvantage Jewish employees, as this is when their Sabbath begins).
Without sounding too pessimistic, an office party is an opportunity for staff members to socialise outside the working environment and can often solidify working relations. Therefore, above all, everyone should have good (safe) fun!
Toni Fitzgerald-Gunn is a Solicitor with Worthingtons Solicitors Belfast and is part of the Employment law Team. Should you have any queries in relation to this article, please submit your enquiy in the form below.