After the disruption to all forms of socialising caused by COVID, the Office Christmas party of 2022 is long awaited. With that anticipation (and a dose of alcohol thrown in), will staff be more likely to “throw caution to the wind” and overstep the boundaries at the event?

When people “let their hair down”, their conversations and behaviour can become less guarded; what one person may deem to be a joke or a friendly hug, another can perceive to be discrimination or harassment.

If you treat someone less favourably because of a protected characteristic (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, sex, sexual orientation religion or belief), this is discriminatory. Claims for harassment can also arise if the harassment is related to a protected characteristic.

There can be repercussions from the Office party which all parties would prefer to avoid: grievances raised; disciplinary proceedings instigated; and in the worst cases, Employment Tribunal claims launched on the basis of events at the party.

Employers will be liable for any discrimination or harassment which is carried out by staff in the course of employment. In most instances, the Office party is likely to be treated by the Employment Tribunal as an extension of the workplace (even when it takes place at an external venue) and employers will be liable for the actions of their staff.

Employers can seek to protect themselves from such claims by ensuring that they have an Equal Opportunities policy in place which outlaws discrimination and harassment, they train staff on in it and deal with any allegations appropriately. A reminder to staff before the party takes place regarding what behaviour is unacceptable and the potential consequences of it would not go amiss.

Employees should also bear in mind that they can be individually named as a party in any Employment Tribunal proceedings (as well as their employer) if allegations of discrimination or harassment are made against them.

Enjoy the party but don’t start 2023 with a HR hangover!

Caption: Julia Woodhouse, Employment Law Solicitor.

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