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Office Parties - Do's and Don'ts

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With the festive season only (!) six months away some employees and employers will already be planning office parties - but perhaps not the behaviour that too often leads to more than a touch of regret in the cold light of day!

A combination of too much alcohol and the opposite sex can be a recipe for disaster if things get out of hand. History shows many a promising career has slithered to an abrupt halt after ill-advised wine fuelled antics - whatever the season.

Many employees would assume that at the traditional office party the normal rules of the workplace do not apply - particularly when the party is out of office hours and takes place in a hired venue. Whilst it is generally true that what employees get up to outside work is their own affair and, in general, nothing to do with their employer, employment law recognises however that off duty misconduct can become the employer's legitimate concern, if a clear link can be established between the business interests of the employer and the actions of employees.

Everybody knows of course that such social events can sometimes give rise to drunkenness, fighting, sexual harassment or other issues that may potentially embarrass both the protagonists and their employer. Most of the cases which reach Employment Tribunals concerning work-related social events involve alcohol to a greater extent than the employer feels is acceptable.

Whilst it would perhaps be unfair to expect employees at an office party to remain entirely sober, especially if the employer is providing the drinks, employers are entitled to take action and exert some control if employees overstep the mark and especially if their actions are likely to have an adverse effect on the employer's reputation and business. This is particularly so where clients are also present.

Examples of sexual harassment (allegedly) abound in connection with office parties and generally conduct which is unreasonable and offensive cannot be excused on the basis that it took place at an office party. Employers investigating complaints of harassment must be careful not to assume that, because alcohol had been consumed or the events took place in a social environment, there was blame on both sides because a failure to deal effectively with complaints of harassment can in itself result in sex discrimination or constructive dismissal claims.

The traditional view has been that, the employer can only be held liable for harassment by another employee if that employee was acting "in the course of employment". In the context of office parties, this may be questionable as such events usually occur outside working hours and often away from the workplace. However, the Court of Appeal has held that employers are liable for harassment which occurs in circumstances over which they have control - irrespective of whether the harasser is acting in the course of employment or is even employed by the employer - unless they can show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent it.

This means that it is possible that employers will be held liable for any acts of harassment that occurred during office parties and even if committed by third parties such as hired entertainers. In other words, think very carefully before you rush to book any entertainment that might offend - a risque comedian isn't always everyone's cup of tea!

For more information contact Paul Grindley on 0113 3993424 or email paulgrindley@keeblehawson.co.uk.

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