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The office Christmas party is often the one time of year when all employees are brought together in a social environment, usually with liberal amounts of alcohol thrown into the mix. Generally, the outcome is positive; colleagues get to know one another, make friends, and harmony is promoted. That is not, however, always the result, warns Peter McCorkell, solicitor for Brodies LLP, writing for HRReview.
It has been reported that nine out of 10 employers have experienced an employment issue arising from a Christmas party, and one in 10 employees knows someone that has been disciplined or dismissed for an incident connected to the office festive celebration.
Here are some top tips to help ensure the Christmas party goes swimmingly and you do not end up in front of an Employment Tribunal in 2014:
Remember that Christmas parties are an extension of the workplace: The case of Chief Constable of Lincolnshire v Stubbs  involved two incidents, which took place between police officers at social events outside work. The first was a night out at a pub and the second was a leaving event. The Tribunal, and Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT), held that neither event was an informal gathering. The two officers would not have attended the events had it not been for the work connection, and the events were both therefore an extension of the workplace.
Pre-party Communications: Aside from details; such as dress-code, time, and venue, employers should provide employees with a gentle reminder that the Christmas party is an extension of the workplace and that certain standards are expected of them.
There are several cases where one employee has overstepped the mark at the office Christmas party and the employer has been successfully sued for sexual harassment. In such circumstances the employer will be required to pay out an award for injury to feelings.
The way for employers to avoid such penalties is to show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent the employee’s behaviour, for example, by sending the pre-party communications discussed above, or by giving the employee training on equality and diversity.
Inappropriate Behaviour: In one case, a senior manager became heavily intoxicated, was verbally abusive to the company director, and then assaulted some of his co-workers. He must have been surprised when he learned that, not only had he missed out on that big promotion, but he had been dismissed for his antics. He brought a claim for unfair dismissal, which, unsurprisingly, was dismissed.
Employers could consider having designated managers to keep an eye out for any potential trouble-makers (e.g. people drinking too much). This can nip the problem in the bud and any employees that have had a bit too much can be sent home safely in a taxi before they do something they regret.
Beware the aftermath of the Christmas party: The dangers of gossiping about the office Christmas party (or ‘mistle-blowing’, as it should really be known) are illustrated in the case of Nixon v Ross Coates Solicitors . A female employee in a business development role was in a relationship with one of the firm’s solicitors. At the Christmas party, however, she was seen kissing the IT manager and at the end of the night they left together.
She became pregnant and the firm’s HR manager began speculating about the identity of the father. The employee felt that people in the office were gossiping about her and she resigned and brought a claim. An employment tribunal found that she had been constructively dismissed and, on appeal, it was also found that her treatment amounted to sex discrimination, pregnancy-related discrimination and harassment.
Anti-social media: Cases involving inappropriate use of social media sites have been on the rise for a number of years and it is surely only a matter of time before we see a case involving a comment, tweet or photo relating to the Christmas party. The Nixon case discussed above could easily have involved speculation about the father of the employee’s baby on Facebook rather than in the workplace. Employers should have a social media policy in place and remind employees of its existence in the run-up to Christmas.
Having said all this Mr McCorkell didn’t advocate that office Christmas parties become bland, lifeless affairs. With the right communications beforehand and policy structure in place employers can reap the benefits of getting employees together for a jolly evening without adding ‘disciplinary hearings’ to the New Year ‘to do’ list.