The office party can be an employment law minefield. Problems range from employees drinking too much to instances of misconduct and harassment. And the consequences can be far more serious than just a sore head and a few embarrassing pictures.
The most likely claim to arise as a result of a Christmas party is, sadly, a sexual harassment claim.
The definition of harassment can be found at Section 26 Equality Act 2010. Harassment occurs where “ A engages in unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, and the conduct has the purpose or effect of violating person B’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B.”The “relevant protected characteristics” mentioned above include age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
Essentially, if person A has too much to drink and acts in a way which makes person B feel uncomfortable or threatened, based on their race, gender, or any of the other characteristics listed above, then person B has every right to lodge a harassment claim.
As an employer, you are liable for the discriminatory actions of your employees carried out in the course of their employment. In this case, a Tribunal is likely to decide that an act which has taken place at a party organised or funded by an employer counts as having been carried out in the course of the employment.
An employer may not be found liable if he or she can prove that they took steps that were reasonably practicable to prevent the employee (person A) from committing such an act in the course of their employment. If an employee raises a complaint of harassment, employers should act fast and if necessary seek legal advice.
That said regardless of whether it can protect you at an Employment Tribunal, all employers should take steps to protect their employees from feeling harassed in a work environment. The Christmas party should be a time for everyone to relax and have a good time, after all, you have been working hard all year. So this year, let’s make sure everyone has a good time!