Will your Christmas Party result in more than just a hangover?

A reminder for employers of the dangers of Christmas parties.

Everyone loves a party and, unlike other jurisdictions, Jersey is lucky to still enjoy a culture of work do’s and entertainment. However, Christmas parties (or indeed any employer organized social event) can go awry and cause workplace disruption and even create liability. The clear perimeters of the workplace blur in unfamiliar social surroundings as staff import their idea of a good night out into what they forget is actually work. Problems range from: inappropriate work conversations between managers and staff; offensive party conduct; drink-fuelled arguments or violence; and even sexual and racial harassment. In the cold light of the morning after, these issues convert into absenteeism, grievances, disciplinaries, resignations and dismissals which, in turn, cause disputes and proceedings either because management fail to deal with such issues or are perceived to have unfairly handled them.

A good illustration of this is the recent case of Westlake vs ZSL London Zoo ET/2201118/2015 where two female zoo keepers had a full blown punch up over a man at the Zoo’s staff Christmas Party. The substantive finding was one of unfair dismissal of the Applicant as a result of unfair leniency of sanction awarded to her assailant. Whilst there is nothing new in law in the case, it is a good reminder to employers that it can be virtually impossible for employers to untangle allegations of employee misconduct at work events (especially where evidence from drunk witnesses wildly varies) but it can be fair to dismiss both parties even if the more innocent party is also dismissed. The case is also a healthy reminder that errant employees do not always profit from substantive unfairness as the Applicant’s compensation was reduced to zero; glassing people in the face is clearly unacceptable. But, that is little comfort to London Zoo who suffered the cost and inconvenience of defending itself. The question remains whether the matter would even have occurred but for the fact there was a party?

Further, this year something has changed. As of September, Jersey has a sex discrimination law, which could mean that the usual party antics could also amount to illegal sex discrimination and personal liability at that. Of chief concern is the scope for sexual harassment not only because it is more widely defined than you might think, but because managers and employees alike persistently fail to gauge what is and what is not appropriate behaviour. The key is to ensure staff realise their colleagues may view their conduct or actions as unwanted and/or offensive. If in doubt, err on the side of caution. A recent round-up of UK case law shows the misery of sexual harassment in the workplace continues for women, particularly junior employees, who not only suffer harassment but lose their jobs to boot.

No-one wants to be a Scrooge but arranging any party brings responsibility (a hot topic on the Island that has seen schools cancel their proms) so if you wish to keep your tradition of a Christmas party here are some handy practical tips:

1. Communicate your expected standards of conduct throughout the festive season to your employees.
2. Get business owners to tackle each other on expected standards – no point having one rule for staff if no-one keeps the keeper.
3. Vet any entertainment on offer to ensure it’s suitable and inclusive to all sex and racial groups. Include all of your employees, including those on maternity, paternity or adoption leave but don’t make attendance obligatory.
4. Ensure Secret Santa/Christmas gifts do not offend or reward one sex more favourably than another.
5. Consider timing and dates of events. Consider evening do’s over lunch do’s – the latter can lead to all day drinking. Consider Friday and Saturday do’s to pre-empt absenteeism.
6. Consider whether a free bar is a good idea. Time-limit free alcohol. Ban shots.
7. Consider appointing one person to stay sober to tackle any problems the moment they emerge.
8. Actively monitor. Safeguard any under 18’s. Challenge gate crashers. Be on the look out for clients who may take offense or competitors who may capitalise on your antics.
9. Do not necessarily time your bonus to coincide with Christmas time.
10. Take stock every year, ban offenders from future social events, and put your mind as to what or whether to repeat next year…

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