Office Christmas parties in the UK are nearly as traditional as mince pies! In addition to holding a Christmas party as a “thank you” to staff, it provides an opportunity for the whole organisation to come together and as such is a way of reminding staff that they are part of a common endeavour. For many workers, the office Christmas party is the social event of the year!
These parties are usually the only work event that embraces everyone in the business, and so is the only time that individuals within an organisation who have polarised social, religious and political beliefs are thrown together, along with plenty of free alcohol and festive high spirits. Inevitably, this combination can result in inappropriate conduct.
Most employees in England and Wales know that discrimination in the office is unlawful. What many do not appreciate, however, is that the Equality Act 2010, which prohibts discrimination and harassment in the UK, applies where individuals are acting in the course of their employment. The Act does not distinguish between acts done in the office during the working day and events that take place out of the office (even in the early hours of the morning) – so it will cover any discriminatory behaviour at the office party Christmas party.
Probably the greatest risk at office parties is that someone will suffer harassment – which could relate to sex, race, disability, age, sexual orientation, religious belief, gender reassignment, pregnancy, marriage or civil partnership. The classic example of this is where a person makes a joke about, say, sexual orientation to a group of people. Most of them laugh, but one person feels humiliated. It is irrelevant that the ‘joker’ did not intend to upset anyone, they can still create liability for both themselves and their employer (which is vicariously liable for the acts of its employees done in the course of their employment).
So what some people regard as ‘harmless banter’ can potentially lead to a member of staff being the subject of a formal grievance, being dismissed for gross misconduct, then having an employment tribunal claim brought against them (as well as against their employer), and in some cases even being ordered to pay compensation. That is a very sobering thought.
While it is impossible to remove the risk of inappropriate comments or harassment occurring, there are steps that employers can take to reduce that risk, and to put them in a stronger position to defend any claim. Employers have a defence to a discrimination claim if they can show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent employees from committing a discriminatory act – for example by:
- Ensuring their equal opportunities policy is up to date
- Offering a selection of food and drink that caters for different religions and cultures, with a limit on the amount of alcohol provided
- Circulating written guidance, which warns staff against inappropriate behaviour at the party and reminding them that such behaviour could result in disciplinary action
- Dealing with any complaints raised about the party appropriately, and in accordance with company procedures
It is easy to dismiss these measures and anti-discrimination legislation as trying to stop people having fun during the festive season. But the laws exist so that everyone feels at ease both at work and while socialising with colleagues. After all, not least at Christmas time, we should embrace the notion of peace and goodwill to all!