The festive season is here and I’m sure for some employers it brings back unpleasant memories of Christmases past. Behaviour that would normally seem inappropriate can rear its ugly head when alcohol is available in abundance and teams let their hair down.

The result for employers can be costly hours spent resolving issues to avoid formal grievances or disciplinary action.

“We are organising a Christmas party away from the office. In light of the recent media coverage about sexual harassment, we want to protect our employees. How can we do this?”

Sexual Harassment can take many forms. At office parties, it can range from inappropriate touching, hugging or kissing to suggestive remarks.  It doesn’t need to be in person – it can even take place via e-mail or social media or subsequent to the event.

Incidences that are acceptable or insignificant to one individual will have a substantial impact on another. With recent media coverage, more and more people are speaking up, as they have been made aware that what they experienced in the workplace was, in fact, harassment.

“Who is responsible for the unacceptable behaviour of employees whilst not on work premises?”

Under The Equality Act 2010, your company is legally responsible for any discriminatory action, harassment or victimisation carried out by one employee (or group) against another even if you did not approve, authorise or know of the discrimination. To mitigate against this, employers will need to demonstrate that they took reasonable steps to prevent such behaviour. Having an Equality Policy is not always enough.

“What about external clients and guests attending a company function?”

You should be aware that your employees could sue you for damages if you fail to protect them from sexual harassment or any form of discrimination by third parties or clients of your company that you invite to the party.

Furthermore, you cannot absolve yourself from liability even if the event is outside of office hours or away from the office as it is seen as ‘in the course of employment’. In some cases, employers could even be liable for events that occur after a work party.

Creating a culture of respect can help prevent unwanted behaviour not just at social events but also as a standard principle for day-to-day business.

A consistent message of acceptable and not acceptable behaviour is key to avoiding any potential grievances or claims. As harsh as it sounds, some employees need to know the consequences of breaching company policy and standards.

During your employee onboarding process, employee communication, handbook, policy documentation, team briefs or management workshops it’s important you reiterate your company values. Employees need to be aware of the company’s position on matters such as discrimination, harassment or victimisation. This would proactively remind every one of the company’s position at social events, without having to send out a social workplace policy just before the Christmas party!

If you do have reoccurring ‘offenders’ who have been subject to warnings previously then it is certainly worth reminding those employees of the dangers and consequences of excessive alcohol consumption and that it should be consumed in moderation.

Employees who have raised concerns should be made aware that a grievance procedure is available if they wanted to pursue a formal route. Once such allegations are made, you have to act swiftly and ensure that you take matters seriously. In practice, this means following a fair procedure and putting aside any personal views.

As an employer, you can be liable for direct discrimination and victimisation due to your reaction to the complaint or the manner in which you investigate it. Therefore, ensure that you appoint appropriate impartial advisors to consider the allegations and conduct the procedure.”

If you have concerns about a sexual harassment complaint, reach out to Tassic for advice and support.