The Christmas and new year period is drawing to a close. Hopefully the majority of Christmas parties were a successful opportunity to reward employees, build relationships and boost morale. But how should employers address any issues of misconduct at the office party, or over the festive period generally? And can anything be done to ensure that similar problems don’t recur at the end of this year?

There are a number of cases which highlight the extent to which employees at an office party might get themselves into trouble. Common issues include harassment, excessive drinking, assault/brawling and managers making promises about pay and promotion prospects. Another potential area of risk from an employer’s perspective is religious discrimination.

Problems generally arise where employees fail to meet an employer’s expected standards of behaviour. Prior to the event employers should remind employees that, whilst it may take place away from work premises and outside of office hours, an office party is still a work event and employees will be expected to behave accordingly (and may be disciplined if they don’t).

After the event, employers will need to discipline in a consistent way individuals who breach those standards of behaviour. Employers who have allowed misconduct to go unpunished in previous years may struggle to convince a Tribunal why it is now reasonable to discipline an employee for a similar misdemeanour. Employees will also need to deal with all individuals involved in a consistent and fair way. In one Irish case an employee who had been dismissed following an assault was awarded damages, partly in light of the fact that he was the only employee disciplined following the incident. The case involved an altercation between the claimant and another staff member, who the claimant alleged had deliberately burned him with a cigarette (the employer relied on CCTV evidence which the Tribunal considered to be inconclusive).

Furthermore, employers should consider to what extent they may be deemed to have contributed to or condoned any misconduct. For example, whilst many employees will relish an open bar, an employer who allows excessive drinking by offering an open bar may be deemed by a Tribunal to have condoned any subsequent drunken misbehaviour. For example, in one case the ET held that it was unfair to dismiss three employees for fighting after seven hours drinking at a free bar supplied by the employer. This is an extreme decision, and was eventually overturned by the EAT, but it is an important reminder that employers would be wise to moderate employees’ alcohol consumption at an event.

Of course, there are a number of practical things which an employer might do to mitigate risks posed by an office party: employers organising events should consider monitoring alcohol intake; provision should be made for individuals with certain religious beliefs (for example, vegetarian food and non-alcoholic beverages); and managers should avoid conversations around pay and promotion which may be interpreted as a promise to an employee. Employers may also consider including a paragraph in their disciplinary policy to the effect that the policy applies to external and social events.

In summary, employers shouldn’t shy away from disciplining individuals who have behaved badly at the Christmas party or over the festive period. However, employers will need to be mindful of how they have dealt with any similar issues in the past, as any inconsistency in terms of approach may cause difficulties for the employer in justifying its actions. Furthermore, looking forward employers would be well advised to communicate their expectations to employees prior to an event, and to consider issues like the potential for excessive alcohol consumption when planning the event.

Anna Worthington - Solicitor, Employment

Posted on 02/01/2015 in Legal Updates

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