We have all heard stories where people let their hair down at the Christmas party – and the boozy office bash turns messy. A number of untoward things can take place! We have reached that time of the year when we need to remind ourselves and staff about acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour.

Most employees want to work in an environment which they are all proud of, where participation and excellence are promoted and people are encouraged to work in collegial ways. We all understand (or should) that harassment including sexual harassment is unlawful. Clearly unwelcome, uninvited and sometimes unintentional behaviour that can make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated is unacceptable. Respect and support of each person’s right to be free from harassment should be a given. Things like comments, jokes or innuendo of a sexual nature, or relating to a person’s sexual orientation, uninvited physical contact or gestures and repeated requests for social contact which are unwanted is harassment.

What to do

The employers have a responsibility as a responsible host to ensure that staff are looked after and to ensure that there is sufficient food at any function where alcohol is served. If staff become intoxicated there should be a plan in place to deal with that, including telling the staff member that they have had enough to drink and if necessary, sending the staff member home in a taxi. This means that the employer may need to designate senior members of its management to monitor festivities. That senior manager should be responsible for ensuring the welfare and safety of staff members.

In the event of an incident at the Christmas party an employer has a duty to look after not only a complainant but also the potential perpetrator. There may need to be an intervention at the Christmas party and a follow-up investigation. It is important when incidents like this occur that the employer deals with the matter professionally and in a fair and reasonable manner. The starting point, of course, is the employer’s policies and these will need to be reviewed before any action is taken. Statements from potential witnesses are important but it is often impractical to do that at the function. Alcohol can also be an impediment to the reliable recollection of events and this is just another factor an employer might need to consider in determining what (if any) follow-up action is necessary. If a formal investigation is required, then it is often preferable to get an independent trained investigator to look into the matter.

It is not uncommon for there to be a falling out between employees following the Christmas party and this often does not manifest itself until the employees return to work after the Christmas break. Employers or managers may become aware that the relationship between employees has become “frosty” and thoughtful behaviours are not reciprocated. Employees not speaking to each other and not collaborating can have a significant impact on the work environment and employers might need to deal with that frostiness. In situations like this, employers will need to nip any unpleasantness in the bud and speak to employees – even informally – to find out what has happened and how the situation can be rectified. There are many options available to an employer to assist with the rebuilding of employment relationships, including the use of counsellors, facilitators and employment mediators.

Employers should be very clear in any communications with staff about the behavioural expectations at the Christmas party so that everybody gets to enjoy the function. The best option is to put steps in place to avoid these issues. Setting expectations for the Christmas party might make the difference between cheer and calamity. Where incidents do occur, they need to be dealt with in the right way. If you have any queries about what to do please feel free to contact your Wynn Williams employment team.