Workplaces all over the country are gearing up for the annual Christmas party. It is a valuable opportunity for employers to celebrate the hard work and success of staff at the end of the year, and it can boost morale for the forthcoming one. But even before the partying has begun, employers will have a few headaches.
Chief among these is whether, in these times when religious identity is being asserted, it is appropriate to celebrate Christmas in the workplace. Last week, Radio 4 reported the results of a poll in which 70% of employers said they would not be celebrating Christmas at work for fear of offending non-Christian staff or customers.
This is an overreaction. The religious discrimination laws only operate where the employer treats certain workers less favourably than others on the grounds of religious belief. In fact, the old argument that Christmas has lost its meaning as a Christian festival may be of relevance to any employer taken to task about such “discrimination”, in that the parties do not relate to religion, but to a well-recognised social convention observed by all sectors of the community.
As for decorating the workplace, the question is whether putting up decorations with Christian emblems offends the law in any way. It is unlawful to harass someone on the grounds of religious belief, but the test for harassment involves the complainant being subjected to a hostile, intimidating or humiliating environment and, where it is not deliberately created by the employer or other employees, the position must be viewed through the eyes of a reasonable by-stander. It is unlikely that the display of Christian symbolism on cards and decorations could create such an environment.
The larger question is whether those of other faiths should be entitled to decorate the workplace for major religious festivals to ensure equality of treatment.
Other forms of harassment are much more likely – especially once the alcohol begins to flow. Clearly, the Christmas party should not be seen as the opportunity for senior managers to make a pass at the office junior. This may amount not only to discrimination and harassment on the grounds of sex, but also now on the grounds of age, as a difference in age is often an element in sexual harassment.
In terms of liability, it will make no difference whether the party takes place in the office, in a pub or a hotel, as the employer can be held responsible for the acts of its staff at work-related parties outside the workplace.
Any entertainment offered should be sensitive to the race, sex, sexual orientation, age, religion or belief of employees. Many readers will be familiar with the case of a well-known comedian who, as part of the after-dinner entertainment, subjected a waitress serving at the event to crude and humiliating racist and sexist abuse. She was successful in a claim against her employer on the basis that it had some control over the comedian’s act.
The aftermath of the Christmas party will inevitably involve the odd hangover or two. While unauthorised absence from work the following day may be a disciplinary matter, the employer would be wise to put the issue into perspective by warning staff in advance that attendance at work the next day is expected.
So, eat, drink and be merry. The discrimination laws should not be seen as a killjoy. They go no further than ensuring the dignity of, and respect for, workplace colleagues. And in the season of goodwill that is the least one should expect.
The religious discrimination laws only operate where the employer treats certain workers less favourably than others on the grounds of religious belief.
Employers can be held responsible for the acts of their employees at work-related parties outside the workplace.
Any entertainment offered should be sensitive to the race, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion or belief of staff.
The annual sweepstake prize should be capable of being enjoyed by anyone.
By Smair Soor, employment barrister, 7 Bedford Row Chambers