The Christmas Party and related social events can be an effective means of acknowledging the contribution and efforts of employees' over the working year. As Christmas is once again upon us it is important that employers recognize their legal responsibility for employee behaviour during work related social events.
Section 15 of the Employment Equality Act 1998 provides that anything done by an employee in the course of his or her employment shall be treated for the purposes of the Act as done also by that person?s employer whether or not it was done with the employer?s knowledge or approval.
Case law in recent years has determined that an employer may be held liable for an incident that takes place at a work related event where the circumstances are sufficiently connected with the claimant?s work. An example of this is the case of Maguire ?v- North Eastern Health Board DEC 2003 14E.L.R 340. Here an employee was verbally insulted and assaulted at an office Christmas party allegedly due to his membership of the traveller community. The Equality Tribunal held that the Christmas party was a work related social event as the Claimant would not have been present at the party had he not been employed by the respondent organization.
Employers should also be aware that pursuant to Section 14A of the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2004 they may be held liable for the actions of a client, customer or other business contact (and this may extend to an incident which that takes place at a work-related social event or Christmas party). In the case of Ms. A .v. A Contract Cleaning Company DEC-E2004-068, the claimant issued proceedings against her employer when she was sexually harassed by a security guard who worked for another company. The claimant was awarded compensation in the sum of ?21,000.
It is a defence for an employer to prove that it took reasonably practicable steps to prevent unwanted incidents from occurring at the Christmas party. In an effort to protect the employer from potential costly claims of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment, as well as claims under health and safety legislation, employers should consider therefore taking some of the following precautionary measures:-
? Ensure that an appropriate and clearly drafted policy regarding bullying, harassment and sexual harassment is in place which makes it clear that bullying/harassment will not be tolerated by the employer. The policy should be widely circulated and appropriate training provided to managers and employees.
? Publicise the employer?s disciplinary procedure and ensure that employees are aware that they may be subject to disciplinary action for unacceptable behaviour or misdemeanours committed at the event.
? Staff should be reminded that consumption of alcohol at the party should be moderate and the employer should arrange transport or accommodation to discourage people from drink driving.
? Employers should ensure that the chosen venue fulfils their health and safety obligations to employees and is suitable for the event. Furthermore, employers are under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to the venue to accommodate any employees with disabilities. Adequate security and insurance measures should also be adopted.
? Managers should be briefed on how to deal with unacceptable behaviour from employees.
? Managers should refrain from engaging in career discussions to include promotions, career prospects and salary or in discussions on any matter that might more appropriately be dealt with by way of an appraisal meeting.
Employers should ensure that any allegations made following the Christmas party are properly dealt with and if it is necessary to take disciplinary action that such action is appropriate, proportionate and applied consistently.
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