Each December, half the law firms in the country seem to post articles about the legal perils of the Company Christmas Party, as both topical and easier for people to relate to than most legal articles.
It is easy at this time of year for us lawyers (just before we leave for our own firm’s Christmas Party) to pen articles soberly warning of the risk that abundant alcohol and end of year high spirits at these events will lead to employers being sued for sexual harassment, employees sacked for assault and sensationalised press reports of the ensuing Tribunal cases attracting embarrassing publicity for both.
Fortunately, most company Christmas parties do take place without any lasting damage being done.
However, we have heard, for example, on good authority, of one man who consulted a solicitor as to whether he had a legal remedy after he was dismissed for alleged misbehaviour at a company Christmas party. When asked if the allegations were true, he admitted “I don’t know. I must have drunk so much I don’t have any memory of what happened”, which did not make it easy for the solicitor to advise him.
Indeed, the reported case of MBNA Ltd v Jones, arising from a company event held at Chester Race Course in 2013 only came to an end recently, after 2 years of Tribunal proceedings and goodness knows how many thousands of pounds worth of legal costs and management time. On appeal a Tribunal held that MBNA bank were not unfairly inconsistent to dismiss one member of staff for punching another in the face, but only giving the other a final written warning for threatening by text message to “knock” the other’s “block off” in reprisal.
It may be unfair to employers who are sued for e.g. failing to prevent sexual harassment, but unfortunately a fact that, once the case is issued, the press may report the allegations for their sensational and prurient interest, but if at the end of the case the employer is vindicated, may not report that, because the case no longer has sensational or prurient interest.
So that nothing like that happens to you or your company:
- Both employers and staff should remember that, while of course more relaxed standards of behaviour apply at a company party than at work, this does not mean that anything goes. Even though it is outside work, the employer may discipline staff for misbehaviour.
- Employers should back this up by stating in their Disciplinary and Harassment Policies that the Policies apply even to conduct outside work, if it affects other members of staff or e.g. customers, or the company’s reputation.
- Impairment of judgment by excessive consumption of alcohol plays a part in many incidents, so do consider whether a free bar until the early hours of the morning is necessarily a good idea;
- While Managers are entitled, like everyone else, to relax and enjoy the occasion, they should remain sober and alert enough to:
- Be aware of the example of behaviour they are setting to more junior staff
- Notice if any member of staff has had too much to drink and discreetly advise both that person and bar staff serving them that it is time they switched to fruit juice or lemonade.
- It may be best to discourage inappropriate use of the photocopier on these occasion.
- Some staff due to their religion or values may object to attending events where alcohol is consumed and/or to that celebrate Christian festivals like Christmas. Others, in the tradition of the Puritan Christian Oliver Cromwell, who tried to ban all celebration of Christmas by law, may object to Christ’s Nativity being an occasion for drinking, raucousness and lewd dancing.
That is for individual conscience and not a reason to deny those staff who like to party at Christmas the chance to do so. To avoid appearing to discriminate, employers should invite all members of staff unless they say they do not want to be invited to such events, but not make them feel they have to attend if they do not wish to do so.
Remember that some staff may be vegetarians and others may choose the vegetarian option if they do not want to eat meat that is not kosher or halal, so try to have a genuinely interesting vegetarian menu option.
Remember also that apart from possible religious objections, drinking alcohol, Christmas Crackers and disco dancing to 1970s Christmas records are not everyone’s idea of fun. Do consider having a few other kinds of company social event at other times of the year, so that those who do not attend Christmas parties do not feel excluded. After all, charity and goodwill to one’s fellow men and women has been part of the spirit of Christmas long before anyone invented tinsel, Christmas Crackers or disco dancing to 1970s Christmas records.