Is it worth planning an Xmas bash?

Boozed-up
stupidity is fuelling an increasing number of sexual harassment claims in the
workplace. Quentin Reade asks whether the office Christmas party is really
worth it.

Christmas
may be a way off, but department store Harrods has already opened its
10,000sq.ft Christmas World section, and many companies will be starting to
plan the annual festive knees-up.

In
July, Merrill Lynch paid out a huge amount, estimated to be between £500,000
and £1m, to former lawyer Elizabeth Weston, who accused the bank of sex
discrimination, victimisation and constructive dismissal. Weston claimed that a
senior lawyer at the firm made lewd comments to her at a Christmas lunch.

Makbool Javaid, employment lawyer
and partner at law firm DLA, warns employers to start thinking about the
Christmas party sooner rather than later.

“There
is a danger [to the employer] with holding Christmas parties. People think they
have carte blanche to do crazy things,” he says. But, he warns, in the eyes of
the law, a Christmas party will be considered an extension of work.

Javaid says an outright ban on parties may not be the
answer, but organisations should conduct a risk assessment to see whether the
risk is worth it – employees expect a party and to banish it could have a
negative effect on morale.

“If
a company does decide to hold one, then in the invitation there should be a
reminder that people must behave themselves,” he says. But can people do that? As Javaid points
out: “Traditionally, there is an expectation that bosses will spend money on
staff getting inebriated.”

And
many employees tend not to behave. A poll by recruitment website Monster shows
that 45 per cent of UK
staff have kissed co-workers at the office party – the
second highest number in Europe.

According
to a recent survey by law firm Peninsula,
almost 70 per cent of employers have already abandoned financing Christmas
parties due to employee misbehaviour.

Of
the 2,000 organisations surveyed, a staggering 75 per cent have, at some stage,
had to take firm disciplinary action following a staff Christmas party.

The
risks are now even greater with the introduction of laws allowing staff to
claim they have been discriminated on religious grounds.

Many
employees, due to religious grounds, may feel uncomfortable being in the same
room with Brian from accounts, who is charging around with a bottle of tequila
and a pair of fakes breasts slung over his chest.

“If
the party is seen as part of a bonding exercise, and you can’t go because of your
religion, then you could argue you are being indirectly discriminated against,”
Javaid says.

“Why
do companies spend so much on Christmas parties?” he asks. “If you are going to
spend £30,000 on ‘team building’, then why not do it
in a strategic way.”

Or,
why not do it like the US Army? At a US
army base near Southampton last
year, staff were warned they would face disciplinary
action if they missed their Christmas party. In a memo to staff, Commander
Raymond Langlais wrote: “If you feel like I am trying
to force fun upon you, then you are correct.”

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