Office Christmas parties – avoiding the pitfalls

It has been reported that as the economy improves, more employers are organising Christmas parties for their staff this year. However, there can be legal pitfalls associated with office Christmas parties--although the risks can be easily mitigated by taking some common sense steps.

How do I avoid problems at Christmas parties?

Christmas parties can be a good way for team members to get to know each other better and relax after the hard work of the year. Christmas parties are regarded as an extension of the workplace, so employers will be responsible for the actions of their employees.

Many problems can arise if a member of staff feels that they have been discriminated against in some way that is prohibited under the Equality Act 2010. Because of the less formal nature of a party (and because of likely alcohol consumption) problems that would never arise in an office scenario can happen at a party, such as harassment or inappropriate banter. In addition, the employer itself can cause problems by requiring employees to attend, or by offering an inadequate choice of food. Examples of problems, and how they can be alleviated, are:

Alcohol

Limit the amount on offer, perhaps provide one free glass of bubbly on arrival and a glass of wine with the meal and expect employees to buy their own drinks otherwise. Having to buy one's own drinks will generally limit consumption. Also remind employees before the party for the need for responsibility.

Venue

Ensure that the venue is accessible to all and consider providing, or paying for, safe transport home.

Food

Cater for alternative dietary requirements and religious restrictions.

Partners

If you allow employees to bring their partners, do not make assumptions about the gender of those partners.

Entertainment

Ensure that any entertainers do not make offensive, sexist or racist jokes. Ensure also that staff understand that they may not engage in inappropriate banter.

Invitations

Remember to invite those on long-term leave such as sick leave or maternity leave.

Attendance at work

Make sure that you give employees clear instructions on whether you expect employees to attend work the next day, whether they must be at work on time or can arrive a little later than usual or work at home.

If somebody raises a grievance after the event, deal with it as you would any grievance. Consider whether you need a specific section in your staff code of conduct about social events.

For more information on some of the issues referred to in this article, see the following Practice Notes:

Age, gender reassignment, race and sex

Disability

Marriage and civil partnership

Religion or belief

Sexual orientation

Grievance procedure

Code of conduct and disciplinary and dismissal procedure.

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