Bosses Fear Unwelcome Presents

Discrimination in the workplace

06.12.2006

More Yorkshire bosses will be playing Scrooge this year due to worries over legal consequences of events at office Christmas parties, one of the region's top lawyers has warned.

Simon Coates, national head of employment law, based at national law firm Irwin Mitchell's offices in Queen Street, Leeds, says his organisation's experience indicates 60 per cent of the area's employers will not stump up cash to finance Yuletide knees-ups this year.

He said: "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, which can start with drunken banter or stolen kisses under the mistletoe.

"Our experience suggests about three-quarters of 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 harassment and businesses do not conduct full investigations or issue formal warnings to staff stepping seriously out of line, they could easily find themselves on the wrong end of expensive employment tribunal decisions with potentially unlimited payouts, just as if the misconduct had happened at work."

Bosses need to be aware of discrimination legislation

Mr Coates said bosses in Yorkshire need to be particularly vigilant as discrimination legislation generally widens the definition of harassment to include not just discriminatory (e.g. sexist) actions and behaviour, but someone's dignity being violated by a hostile, degrading or offensive environment.

Employers could face discrimination claims
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.

"Even employers who make it clear sexist behaviour will not be tolerated at Christmas parties, should realise that such events may give still rise to concerns over other forms of unlawful discrimination.

"An evening event that ends up in a nightclub could, in extreme circumstances, be seen as demonstrating an employer wished to exclude older workers, possibly giving rise to age discrimination risks. Alternatively, an event focused around consuming alcohol may discriminate against those whose religious faith does not permit such actions."

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.

He said: "The fact is that drink-drive accidents can result in huge liabilities, if employers are deemed responsible. Our advice is to consider providing coaches or taxis to take staff home where appropriate or make clear the standards expected of staff."

Mr Coates said there were other reasons why managers in Yorkshire 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."