Since the pandemic, this feels like the first year when we are almost back to normal. And, for many employers this could be the first time they have held any event to mark the Festive Season since 2019.
So, it is worth reminding staff what is expected of them in terms of behaviour. Organisations have to lay down some ground rules, or else someone could misbehave, let themselves or the organisation down, and even lay themselves open to disciplinary action.
And, even if the pandemic feels as if it is over, you will still need to do a proper risk assessment, identifying the problems, risks and the safest way to operate, especially if you have some staff who are still vulnerable.
It is still work
Even some private social gatherings, if they are identifiable as members of the organisation, can fall under the employer’s rules, and the employer can even be held responsible for the (mis)conduct of their employees.
So, just because a Christmas party takes place outside of work hours, away from their premises, it does not mean that any misconduct falls outside of the employer’s control. And, if it is the employer who has organised it, the event will almost certainly be classed as ‘work’, so at least a modicum of responsible behaviour will be required.
If Management are going to attend, however, it is even more legitimate to expect employees to be on their best behaviour. Such a situation means that any transgressions can be treated more harshly, simply because any inappropriate activity is likely to be more damaging to the organisation’s interests.
The most common misconduct issues we have to deal with are alcohol-related. While employers might accept some level of intoxication, they need to act if drunken behaviour is damaging to business interests, whether as a result of harassment or violence to a co-worker or a third party, or even simply by harming the organisation’s reputation.
If the decision is taken to dismiss an employee for drunken misconduct, Employment Tribunals will always be more critical if employers or Managers have contributed to that employee’s intoxication, either by providing them with alcohol themselves, or granting them the use of a free bar.
But the danger is that the relaxed nature of an office party can also lead to actual occurrences of harassment, or even violence. When investigating complaints, drunkenness or high-spirits should never be considered a sufficient excuse for inappropriate behaviour, or as evidence that the victim of alleged harassment was a willing participant.
And, do not forget third parties. Serving staff or, more importantly, entertainers. Any harassment by them, a racist comedian would be the obvious example, could be problematic and laid at the employer’s door.
Such matters should always be evaluated with a sober mind in the cold light of day, to ensure that they are dealt with in a fair and reasonable manner, and in full compliance with the organisation’s internal policies and procedures.
After the party
Finally, even when the party is over, there are still some important issues to consider. In arranging the event and providing the alcohol, employers will be seen to shoulder some of the responsibility for the outcome.
Therefore, it may be prudent to arrange suitable transport in order to take home any revellers who might be the worse for wear, or just close to/over the legal driving limit. Responsible behaviour here could range from making sure everyone is aware of the telephone number of local taxi firms, up to going the whole hog and providing all employees with transport on minibuses.
Of course, the fact that an intoxicated employee has managed to find their way home is no guarantee that they will turn up for work the next day. As a result, employers should always clarify when staff will be expected to arrive in the office the following morning, particularly if the party is held on a weeknight. Any unauthorised absence can then be addressed using the Attendance Management, Absence and Sickness policy.
In summary then, if an employer wants to have a stress-free Christmas party season, they might benefit from following the steps below:
- Discuss now whether staff are still keen to party, want to defer it or celebrate another way.
- Make sure you do a proper risk assessment.
- Prior to the event, make sure that everyone is aware of how they are expected to behave, and whether or not they are expected to come into work the next day.
- During the social event itself, it can help to have a responsible Manager present to monitor employee behaviour, and perhaps have an informal chat with any party-goers who might be taking things a bit far.
- At the end of the party, consider supplying or arranging transport, particularly if the organisation has been providing free alcohol.
- When it’s all over, ensure any complaints are investigated fairly and comprehensively, in accordance with relevant internal procedures.
The guidance provided in this article is just that – guidance. Before taking any action, make sure that you know what you are doing, or call an expert for specific advice.