know your rights so things don’t go wrong at your office do

Back in 2000, financial publisher Bloomberg blew a reported £1 million on an office party with a “seven deadly sins” theme for its 1,500 British employees. As well as a “lust room” containing a 25-foot-wide bed of purple satin, the party boasted ten bars – one, themed “gluttony”, with a trough of truffles and sweets, according to New York magazine.

Your employer may not go to these lengths to entertain you this festive season, but it has almost certainly organised (or provided funding for) a party, dinner, or even a day out. This can be a good way to show appreciation, boost morale or encourage team building.

Your organisation may not even formally arrange a party, employees might sort their own get-together. Even so, employers can be held liable outside of the workplace and outside of normal working hours for any inappropriate behaviour – even at an unofficial event.

So, regardless of whether you eagerly anticipate or dread the thought of attending an office Christmas party, it’s important to remember that such get-togethers with your colleagues are still work events. Bad behaviour by you, colleagues or even your employer could result in legal proceedings before an employment tribunal or even in court.

Making a list, checking it twice

Potential minefields can start arising even before you’ve sent out any invites. All relevant employees must be invited, with no one deliberately excluded. This is not just about hurt feelings: the left out person or people could claim discrimination.

For larger businesses, it may not be feasible to invite all staff to the same event. Separate “team” events – a sales staff night out, for example, or a marketing team Christmas lunch – shouldn’t be problematic as long as no one is deliberately excluded on any discriminatory grounds such as age, race, disability, religion or gender.

And even if your work does hold an official party, issues can arise at the end of the night if someone is not invited to the after party.

In a case in Ireland, an employer was held liable for both discrimination and harassment after employees used derogatory language about a colleague, who was a member of the Traveller Community, when arranging an after party this colleague was deliberately excluded from (similar rules apply in other countries such as the UK).

The employer explained to the tribunal that it had not been involved in organising the Christmas party or making any financial contribution towards the event. But the employer still took the blame for the exclusion and for the poor treatment of the employee by their colleagues.

Inclusivity is also key when sorting out venues, activities and even themes. Not everyone celebrates Christmas, for example. So you might need to think about arranging something that doesn’t solely revolve around alcohol, and providing non-alcoholic alternatives for people that don’t drink for either personal or religious reasons.

You may even want to consider organising an event during the day to help staff with evening caring commitments, for example.

Harassment at a work party

Just because the Christmas party is held at different premises – a hotel, restaurant, bar, nightclub or other venue – it doesn’t relieve your employer from responsibility for ensuring employees behave in line with workplace policies on dignity and respect. Your employer is still responsible for preventing harassment or sexual harassment at an event, just as it is in your workplace.

Any unwelcome verbal, non-verbal, written or physical conduct can lead to a claim of harassment if it is linked to discriminatory grounds. This means, for example, making inappropriate comments about someone’s age, sexual orientation or race could constitute harassment at work. And while workplaces are often viewed as a place to meet a potential life partner, suggestions of a kiss under the mistletoe (or more) at a work Christmas party may not be welcomed by everyone.

In a Northern Irish case that was heard by an employment tribunal earlier this year, a male employee of a furniture store hugged a female employee from behind, touched her and made inappropriate comments at a work Christmas party in a restaurant. She immediately made it clear this behaviour was unwelcome.

After complaining to her employer following the event, she was then treated differently at work and ultimately felt forced to resign. She was later awarded nearly £19,000 in compensation for the sexual harassment she experienced at the work Christmas party.

When the party’s over.

What if something bad happens?

If you believe that you have been treated differently or harassed during a work-related event, use your company’s internal complaints mechanisms so your employer can investigate.

If you feel your employer’s response or handling of a complaint is unsatisfactory, you can complain to an employment tribunal, depending on where you or the employer are mainly based.

In Great Britain, contact the government’s Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) before submitting your complaint to an employment tribunal (within three months). In Northern Ireland, you can complain to the Industrial Tribunals and Fair Employment Tribunal.

Anyone based in Ireland can complain to the Workplace Relations Commission within six months of an incident. You also have a right to complain if you are treated differently or victimised for raising a complaint.

When employers organise or fund a party, it’s worth appointing a responsible person to oversee the event – before and during. And, it may not be a popular move, but limiting free bars can help limit bad behaviour, as can issuing a reminder beforehand about policies on harassment, dignity and respect in the workplace, as well as the internal complaints procedure. Employees might also need to be reminded that they are technically still at work and should behave accordingly.

Of course, most office parties go off without a hitch. But it’s worth knowing, not only how best to make that happen, but also what to do if things don’t quite go to plan at your next work event.

by : Brenda Daly, Associate Professor of Law, Dublin City University

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