Some of our staff represented the company at a recent social function. Quite a lot of alcohol was consumed and two workers began arguing, which led to a physical fight. This was particularly embarrassing as other staff and clients were present. What action can we take to discipline staff who indulge in inappropriate behaviour outside the workplace, thereby bringing our company name into disrepute?
An employer is vicariously liable for the acts of its employees done “in the course of their employment”, and social events can provide fertile ground for discrimination and harassment claims.
Cases dealing with inappropriate behaviour outside work attract a great deal of (albeit adverse) publicity and have resulted in company bosses being much more aware that they can be held responsible for the ‘inappropriate behaviour’, of staff, even when it occurs at a work event outside normal office hours.
The important question, however, is whether the act(s) were “in the course of employment”. This is a difficult question, at times, but in most cases, an arranged social function is likely to be “in the course of employment”.
The bad news for employers is that compensation for any type of inappropriate behaviour or conduct that can be classed as harassment or discrimination is potentially unlimited. Therefore, employers should implement and enforce effective equal opportunities and anti-harassment policies. It is also advisable to ensure that up-to-date disciplinary and grievance procedures are in place to deal with staff who act inappropriately.
Employers should also provide clear guidance on the behaviour expected at any office party. Staff can be warned that the usual standards apply, and that being ‘under the influence’ is not a defence or justification. They should also be aware that any inappropriate behaviour is likely to be dealt with as a disciplinary matter.
In essence, parties should not be the cause of worry, but employers need to take appropriate steps to try to ensure that everyone has a good time, while acting appropriately.
By Sinead Donnelly, employment lawyer, DWF Solicitors