As an example of the type of problems which could arise, in a recent case, an employee was dismissed after punching a colleague on the way home following the office Christmas party. The employer carried out an investigation and summarily dismissed the employee, finding that there had been no provocation for the attack. The employee argued that the incident occurred outwith the course of employment and therefore fell outwith the employment relationship. He also argued that his colleague had not received a fair disciplinary sanction in comparison. It was decided that the employer was entitled to reach the decision to dismiss as they held a genuine belief that he had carried out the attack unprovoked and had carried out reasonable investigations in reaching such a decision. It was held that the incident was in the course of his employment as there was a sufficiently close connection with the work relationship and, as such, his actions could be considered as misconduct. It was noted, in particular, that the impact on working relationships will be more significant and damaging in smaller companies where continuing close working relationships are unavoidable.
Whilst the employer acted appropriately in this case and the employee was unsuccessful in his claim, it does highlight the risk for employers that incidents such as this would fall within the course of the employment and the employer may find themselves liable in relation to the effects such acts have on other employees.
With this in mind, employers may want to consider the following when planning the festive workplace get-togethers:
The premises should comply with health and safety regulations and have suitable access for disabled staff. Care should also be taken by the employer to ensure that the party is arranged on a date or time to avoid obvious clashes with, for example, other religious events or family commitments.
It is a good idea to provide transport after the event or at least providing employees with local taxi numbers. This is important not only for employees’ safety but also as, in certain circumstances, employers may find themselves vicariously liable for accidents caused by employees drink driving on their way home from the office Christmas Party.
If providing employees with alcohol at the event, it may be advisable to limit the amount of alcohol made available (particularly where this is free!). If the event is being held outwith the office, employees should be reminded that they are still representing the employer’s business and that any inappropriate behaviour will be dealt with in accordance with the company’s disciplinary procedures.
Any form of harassment or threatening behaviour should not be tolerated. Employers may wish to make reference to company policies on bullying/harassment and equality/discrimination policies before the party takes place. Again, employers may find themselves liable for any discriminatory actions carried out by employees in claims made by the aggrieved employee.
If the party is to be held on a weekday evening, it may also be wise to warn employees in advance that failure to attend work / lateness the following day will be considered as a disciplinary matter. However, if this is the case, it will be important to adopt a consistent approach and avoid any discriminatory treatment, whether intentional or not.
Should any incidents occur or complaints be made following the event, it is important to deal with these quickly and fairly. Grievances should not be dismissed or put down to ‘harmless workplace banter’ but should be investigated thoroughly and appropriate sanctions imposed where necessary. If it is decided that an employee should be dismissed as a result of their actions, it will be important to ensure that the ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures is followed, as well as any company policy in place. Failure to do so may result in a claim for unfair dismissal and a 25% uplift on any award made against the employer.
Finally, it should not be forgotten that Christmas should be a time to celebrate and thank employees for their hard work over the past year, as after all they are your most valuable asset! Most Christmas parties will likely be enjoyed by all without any mishaps, however, as ever, please don’t hesitate to get in touch for advice on dealing with any employment issues arising over the festive period.
In the meantime, Hannah and I thank you for your business in 2012 and look forward to working with you in 2013.