While it is important to give staff a chance to let off steam in the run up to Christmas and to reward them for their contribution to the business, some employers view Christmas parties as a real hangover in terms of the potential sexual harassment claims that follow.
Companies should approach the issue from a preventive viewpoint, as any social event, even if in a different location, is really an extension of the office. Employers have a legal duty to prevent harassment at Christmas parties, just like they have a legal duty to prevent harassment in the office. This means a business must show that it tried to deter potential harassers from engaging in such conduct in the first place; it is not enough to state that you were simply not aware of the unwanted behaviour. As employees are generally less careful when it comes to their conduct at office social events compared to during regular working hours, Christmas parties can have serious consequences for employers if it can be shown that they had done nothing to prevent such behaviour happening in the first place.
Make sure that employees are made aware of your business’ bullying and harassment policy before Christmas parties take place and remind employees that holiday festivities will not offer an excuse for violating policy. You may even want to consider implementing a specific ‘Social Event Policy’ highlighting what is and is not expected of employees when attending office parties and events.
If you do not have a written sexual harassment policy already in place, it is advisable that you implement one. Content should include:
• A statement of your commitment to a workplace free of unlawful harassment;
• A definition of the types of conduct that could constitute harassment;
• A procedure for making complaints to designated persons within the business;
• A procedure for investigating complaints of alleged harassment; and
• A statement that if an employee makes a complaint, they will not be subjected to detrimental treatment in retaliation.
Employees must be made aware that harassment will not be tolerated and if (after investigation) they are found to be guilty of such behaviour, they may find themselves being dismissed as a result.
Tips to avoid claims following a Christmas party
Serve alcohol responsibly and provide water/soft drinks. Health and safety legislation requires that employers make provisions for the safety of their employees at all times, and this obligation doesn’t stop at the work Christmas party. Therefore, making sure alcohol consumption is kept at a reasonable level will go a long way in ensuring employees are kept safe in relation to both themselves and each other.
Consider arranging transport home or holding functions close to public transport. The responsibility of the employer extends to ensuring that staff return home safely, after having hosted a work function at which large amounts of alcohol are served. Arranging transport can help reduce the risk of any unwanted behaviour as vulnerable employees will be taken care of at the end of the night when inhibitions are most likely to have been lost.
Make sure all management staff are adequately trained in relation to the expected behaviour at Christmas parties and the way to handle potential complaints. Management should also be reminded to set a professional example during the party and not to encourage colleagues to attend ‘after parties’ or other small gatherings once the office party has come to an end.
Is it all worth the effort?
Some employers may be tempted to cancel their celebratory parties this year because they believe it may not be worth the risk of employees bringing claims. However, Christmas parties provide staff with a great opportunity to interact in a relaxed social environment without the constraints of work. Therefore, with a few simple but highly effective precautions, you can still enter into the spirit of things this festive season and provide your staff with a memorable celebration.