Richard Grogan on employment law: Christmas parties – a nightmare for employers
Employment law solicitor Richard Grogan of Richard Grogan & Associates Solicitors writes on a seasonal topic in the run-up to Christmas.
The season of goodwill is coming upon us. As part of this, the Annual Staff Party is one of those functions where an employer may have to dig deep to feed and water their staff. However, it can become extremely expensive outing for any employer if the Annual Staff Christmas Party results in a sexual harassment claim or an injury claim. We think it is appropriate that we would explain.
The Annual Staff Christmas Party is a work function. Even if it is not organised by the employer but is organised by the staff themselves, it is still a work function.
The availability of drink, or more appropriately free drink, coupled with outpouring of goodwill and festive cheer, can at times result in inappropriate actions being taken by some members of the staff which can result in sexual harassment claims.
Effectively, any inappropriate action, particularly inappropriate physical action, by a member of staff toward another member of staff can result in a sexual harassment claim. Equally, certain actions of certain employees who may think it is great fun to play a trick on a particular employee, particularly where there are issues involving the spiking of drinks or other inappropriate actions, can not only result in potential sexual harassment claims but also in claims for personal injury. The use of social media can often result in inappropriate photographs being distributed which, again, can be the source of embarrassment to a particular employee and can result in potential claims.
Where functions are organised outside the workplace, some employers believe they do not have the same level of control over employees, by which we mean the obligation to ensure no harassment or inappropriate activities are taking place. This is wrong. The employer has the obligation and still has that level of control over the employees as regards to ensuring appropriate interactions.
Unfortunately, there is also the issue of drink-related accidents. Where an employer allows employees to have too much drink at a staff function, there is always the potential of a personal injury claim against the employer for failing to take a care, particularly but not limited to situations where that employee causes an injury to another employee.
Can an employer protect themselves?
The good news is that an employer can protect themselves from claims and there are some simple steps that employers need to take to do so.
You do not want to be seen as a killjoy. Of course, no employer wants to be seen like this. The staff party is an opportunity to celebrate the year and to reward employees for their performance during the year.
It is, however, important that employees understand that this is a work function and that the normal acceptable norms for interaction that would take place in a workplace are no different than what should happen at a staff Christmas party.
Where employers take these simple steps, they can minimise the potential for any successful claim against them should any issues arise. Where they do not, they heighten the potential for a successful claim against them.
Every employment solicitor knows that, in the period during December to the end of January, that is the time that the complaints come in for sexual harassment claims arising out of Staff Christmas parties. It happens every year. They can be expensive pieces of litigation for any employer. By taking some simple steps you can avoid your Staff Christmas party becoming a litigation nightmare for you.