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!