Christmas parties could bring Leeds bosses unwelcome presents, warns top lawyer

Office party claims


Worries over legal consequences of events starting with drunken banter or stolen kisses under the mistletoe at office Christmas parties are increasingly prompting West Yorkshire's bosses to play Scrooge, says national law firm Irwin Mitchell.

Harassment at office parties

The organisation says its experience indicates 60 per cent of the area's employers will not stump up cash to finance Yuletide knees-ups this year. It adds that, contrary to the excuse often given about shortage of funds, these refusals are usually explained by concerns about defending claims from staff experiencing harassment, distress or even violence at the parties.

Simon Coates, national head of employment law, based at Irwin Mitchell's offices in Queen Street, Leeds, said: "Our experience suggests about three-quarters of West Yorkshire employers paying out for Christmas parties have disciplined staff over events taking place at them.

"They were right to do so, as a firm's duty of care to staff continues, even if the party is held out of working hours and away from company premises. The law treats them essentially as extensions of office life which many employers do not realise.

"That means if complaints are made over issues such as discrimination or sexual harassment and businesses do not conduct full investigations or issue formal warnings to staff stepping seriously out of line, then they could easily find themselves on the wrong end of expensive employment tribunal decisions, just as if the misconduct had happened at work."

Mr Coates said bosses in Leeds needed to be particularly vigilant after October's additions to the Sex Discrimination Act widened the definition of harassment to include not just sexist actions and behaviour, but someone's dignity being violated by a hostile, degrading or offensive environment.

He also warned, however: "Bosses cherry-picking staff deemed trustworthy to attend the parties can also backfire. Employers could face discrimination claims from those excluded and will need to cite solid reasons - ideally backed up by evidence of poor behaviour at previous parties - if this happens."

Mr Coates added there were also widespread misconceptions among managers that they could not be called to account for road accidents caused by staff who had been drinking at office parties.

Driving accidents following office parties

He said: "The fact is that drink-drive accidents can result in huge liabilities, if they are deemed responsible. Our advice is always to consider providing coaches or taxis to take staff home where appropriate and avoid leaving your organisation vulnerable to legal action."

Mr Coates said there were other reasons why managers in Leeds should be wary about office parties.

He said: "It's by no means uncommon for tipsy staff to make bosses the first targets of their aggressive words, over issues such as stress or overwork, embarrassing them very publicly. But it's also not unknown for employers to achieve the same result without help, their own drunken antics undermining their authority for a long time after everyone has sobered up and is back at work."

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