Today we have a guest post by Marie Hynes which employers and employees alike should take note of before the festive celebrations begin! Marie is an Associate Solicitor with Augustus Cullen Law Solicitors, working in the General Litigation Department.

Most employees and employers look forward to the company Christmas party at the end of the year. It can be a great way to build and strengthen relationships within your company and celebrate the end of a successful year. Christmas parties are also a great opportunity for employers to thank their staff for the hard work and dedication shown over the year.

However, both employers and employees should keep in mind that, like it or not, on Monday morning, everyone will have to return to the office – and face reality.

Stories of people behaving in inappropriate ways are common, and we have even seen some gain notoriety online. While some might laugh at the thought of someone drunkenly dancing or making a fool of themselves, there can be real and serious consequences for careers if this happens and, of course, inappropriate behaviour can also go a lot further than silly antics.

To avoid any pitfalls, we’ve put together some tips to help you and your team have an enjoyable Christmas season.

Put the right policies and procedures in place

Make sure employees are aware of the relevant policies and procedures your organisation has in place that deal with sexual harassment, harassment and bullying.

These policies should be clearly communicated to employees in advance and it should be highlighted that company policies and procedures extend outside of the work environment to company social events.

What constitutes inappropriate behaviour, including harassment and sexual harassment?

The Employment Equality Acts 1998 – 2015 outlines the essential characteristics of harassment as conduct that is (a) unwanted and (b) that has either the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person.

In view of this, employers should remind employees that the same behaviour deemed appropriate in the work environment is required at a company social event. This also applies to any ‘Secret Santa’, where there is sometimes scope for risqué or inappropriate gifts to be given.

Let employees know in advance that inappropriate behaviour which takes place in a social setting will be dealt with in the same manner as if it had taken place in the workplace.

Employers and members of management teams should also remember that an office party is not an appropriate place for discussions about salary increases, promotions or career prospects.

Understand employers’ duty of care

Most notably, the Employment Equality Act 1998 – 2015 confirms that harassment and sexual harassment can occur outside the workplace. The Equality Tribunal and the Labour Court have had little difficulty in establishing liability where an employee is harassed at what is clearly a work-related event such as a Christmas party.

The rationale for this finding is that such parties are organised by the employer, most of the attendees are employees and the reason for such events is a social party for employees. Recent case law suggests that liability for harassment or sexual harassment which occurs at Christmas parties can only be avoided by an employer expressly preventing such events or providing guidelines and policies around them.

Employers have a responsibility to ensure that the year-end party is enjoyable and safe for all staff members. In addition, employers have a further responsibility to set clear guidelines on what will and will not be tolerated in a social setting. These guidelines need to be communicated clearly and frequently prior to the Christmas party to ensure it will be an enjoyable event for all.

In circumstances where the duty of care employers have towards their staff extends to office events held out of hours, determining when that duty of care ends after a Christmas party is a difficult question. Just because a work function or Christmas party has ended, does not mean that the employer’s duty of care necessarily ends.

An employer or organisation may still be liable if an incident occurs following the event. The standard that usually applies is that the employer has a duty of care to the employees while they engage in any activity reasonably associated with attending a work function. Employers need to consider travel arrangements that employees can make when the party is over and they need to travel home i.e. ensuring that the party is being held in a venue that has good transport links.

The employers’ duty of care ceases when an employee is deemed to enter into conduct which is not “reasonably foreseeable” with attending a work related function.

What to do if things go wrong?

If an issue arises at the Christmas party or an allegation is made afterwards, employers must handle such complaints in the same manner as they would, had the incident occurred during working hours. Investigations should be carried out quickly. The investigations procedure and grievance procedure should be followed closely and, if necessary, invoke the disciplinary procedure at the relevant juncture. Most importantly, do not make any predetermination; make an informed decision and select an appropriate level of discipline necessary for the incident. Ensure all contemporaneous notes and records from the investigation through to the disciplinary procedure are retained.

With the right policies and procedures in place and proper application and understanding of those policies and procedures where necessary, the Christmas party should not cause a headache when returning to work.

This information is for guidance purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. 

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