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Perils of the office party

AGENDA

Bosses planning their company Christmas bash have a lot more to think about nowadays than providing several gallons of booze and a truckload of sausage rolls, as Domenic Donatantonio discovers

THE ANNUAL festive party is now a potential legal minefield, with the prospect of age discrimination laws, health and safety legislation and the Protection from Harassment Act, all giving scope for unwelcome attention from lawyers after the event.

A recent case involving steel company boss Craig Barnshaw - cleared last week of assault following a bloody brawl after the British Constructional Steelwork Association's annual dinner in March - highlights how gatherings like these, fuelled by alcohol and high spirits, can get out of control.

Research from dispute resolution body Acas found that most managers are afraid that bad behaviour at the festive bash could end up in a costly lawsuit.

In a survey of 5,000 bosses, three out of four said that a member of staff had threatened to take a case to an employment tribunal because of an incident at a Christmas party.

Greg Campbell, head of employment at law firm Faegre & Benson, summed up the main problems for employers at Christmas parties as 'men getting drunk and fighting other men' and 'men getting drunk and putting their hands up womens' skirts'.

But should firms be too concerned about these isolated events? Employment advice agency Croner warns against letting exaggerated fears of compensation claims jeopardise employees' chances of enjoying the seasonal festivities.

Richard Smith, employment services director at Croner, said: 'Alarmist reports of the legal risks of Christmas parties, such as boozy brawls, flirting and festering finger-food, are creating a nanny state, causing some bosses to cancel Christmas altogether.

'What employers need to remember is that safety and employment laws are not intended to kill the joy of Christmas.'

Each year employers find themselves dealing with complaints of drunken behaviour, harassment and even violent behaviour from employees.

Sara Sawicki, employment partner at law firm Pinsent Masons, says there is no dividing line for social events organised outside of office hours.

She said: 'Whether it is inappropriate office banter, drunken misbehaviour, sexual harassment or violent assault, employers can be held liable for acts of their employees committed 'in the course of employment'.

'No employer wants to be regarded as the Christmas Scrooge but, given the number of employment-related claims that arise following the annual Christmas party, employers do need to protect themselves insofar as is reasonable.'

Ms Sawicki advises that employers should draw up a guideline of 'do's and don'ts' to ensure that the festivities do not get out of control.

She said: 'There are ways and means of delivering such guidelines diplomatically and without appearing too Draconian.

'They should draw attention to the standard of conduct expected of employees and should refer to the potential disciplinary implications for members of staff who are tempted to overstep the mark.

'While acknowledging that employees will want to have fun, an employer should warn against inappropriate conduct in its guidelines and should deal with any subsequent complaints sensitively.'

Legal claims could even arise out of office hours from drinks in the pub before the Christmas party starts.

For example, any member of staff who suffers, say, verbal abuse for being gay in the pub before the office party could sue, as a team pre-party tipple could still come under work legislation.

Acas recommends: 'Going to the pub before the office party counts as an extension of work and so all the laws covering discrimination still apply.

'Make sure the company has policies in place on bullying and harassment and discrimination and that everyone knows what they are and what the penalties are for ignoring them.'

Mr Campbell from Faegre & Benson added: 'Any employee doing anything sexist, homophobic or racist - even as a joke - must be disciplined.

'That kind of humour is unacceptable. That is why you don't see Bernard Manning on TV any more.'

Company directors who promise everyone a Christmas bonus after a sherry too many could also land themselves in hot water.

Paula Matheson, senior employment law adviser at Empire HR, warned employers that any such statements could be legally binding.

Ms Matheson said: 'Employers should be extremely wary of making promises they cannot keep. Although an employment tribunal would look at the context in which the statement was made, they could deem it to be a legally-binding contractual promise.

'It is therefore imperative that employers do not make any suggestions or promises in connection with any contractual terms and conditions of employment. It may be advisable for managers to be reminded of this prior to attending company events in order to ensure that they are fully aware of the implications.'

A recent poll of more than 1,000 office workers by mobile phone location service FollowUs, threw up some interesting statistics about mishaps at the Christmas office party.

The survey found that 27 per cent of party-goers say or do something to a colleague they later regret, while 35 per cent have had problems making it home. More than 8 per cent ended up more than 50 miles away from home.

Acas has warned that companies could face legal action if drunken staff don't get home safely.

It recommends that employers should take responsibility to help staff get home.

It adds: 'As an employer you have a 'duty of care' toward your employees and, as it is the company's party, you need to take some responsibility.

'Provide the phone numbers for local registered cab companies and encourage employees to use them.

Hiring minibuses to take staff home is another option, which would probably be greatly appreciated.'

The FollowUs survey also threw up some interesting statistics regarding items lost at Christmas parties.

The firm's survey found that 11 per cent of people had lost personal items at the Christmas party, with mobile phones (34 per cent), the most frequent item to go missing. Next on the list was a purse, wallet or jewellery (23 per cent), but perhaps of more eyebrow-raising concern, 13 per cent confessed to losing their underwear.

The morning after the night before is tricky for all involved. But staff who turn up for work visibly looking worse for wear won't be able to use the party as an excuse.

Ms Matheson said: 'Your employees have an obligation to ensure that they are not under the inf luence of alcohol when at work and a personal responsibility to ensure that they are fit to attend work and carry out their duties.

'You should inform your employees that, while you want them to enjoy Christmas parties and nights out, that normal terms and conditions of employment apply and, if anyone does attend for work under the influence of alcohol, that they will be subject to the normal disciplinary procedures, which could result in action up to and including summary dismissal.'

So the message for the Christmas party is: make sure that everyone can enjoy themselves by providing both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks; make sure the entertainment is not strictly aimed at one age group and remind staff that booze-fuelled harassment or brawling must stay off the menu.

And also check out those local taxi firms to help everyone get - or quite probably stagger - home.

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