A legal nightmare before Christmas…

Will the workplace Christmas party survive the employment law onslaught this festive season? Gather in closely, snuggle up and listen carefully as David Whincup teaches us about the Spirit of Christmas.

Santa stared with scarcely concealed loathing at the young barrister elf across the desk from him in the tribunal room. Sharp suit, shiny shoes, and a knot in his nasty nylon tie almost as big as his head. David Beckham has a lot to answer for, Santa thought grimly.

“Yes, Mr Claus?” The chairman interrupted his thoughts. Yes what? Santa scrabbled in vain for the question he had been asked. The relentless probing of the elfin representative was bad enough, but he did think suddenly that turning up to tribunal fully red-suited and booted with fur trim, fake beard, the works, had perhaps been a mistake. The hope that surely no-one could dislike Father Christmas had already withered under the baleful gaze of the tribunal panel – especially after he had tried to enter the room via the chimney and brought down part of the ceiling.

“So why was the Christmas party abandoned at the last minute, Mr Claus?” repeated the tribunal chairman. “Why did you dash the party expectations of your workforce?”

Party safely

Suddenly it all came back to him. In the run-up to 25 December, Santa had received the usual millions of Christmas lists, and almost the same number of fliers from law firms offering seminars on how to enjoy the Christmas party safely. In the old City merchant banking days before his redundancy, Santa had managed this quite nicely, thank you, by turning up for the first hour only, or – on one particularly splendid evening – by not going at all.

Not for him the traditional Christmas party discovery that the Human Rights Act entitlement to respect for his private life did not extend to those parts of it consummated in front of 300 of his colleagues. How he had laughed as others were left to decant into taxis those found out cold in the gents, bobbing gently in a sea of recycled Chardonnay.

He had preferred to swan in the next day, bright and breezy, while wincing colleagues all around made the bleak discovery that even though in vino veritas was Latin, that still did not make it a legal defence. Ah, great days.

Compulsory fun

However, in his new role as Father Christmas (the “embodiment of jolliness on legs”, according to his job description), he could no longer take that view. Fun was compulsory, however distasteful the experience. Conscious of the smirking ranks of Little Helpers packing the back of the tribunal room, Santa told the tribunal of the legal seminar he had attended.

It had been an eye-opener. Everything he had assumed the Christmas do was about – drink, sausage rolls, those Bratz girls in the postroom – was either inadvisable or actively unlawful. What was left was not a party at all, in any sense he understood. He had eaten all the canapés and left the lawyers’ offices a broken man.

That night, Santa told the tribunal, he was haunted by dreams. He had done what the lawyers had said, but in his dreams it had all gone horribly wrong. The food had been scorned as discriminatory because some of it was not vegetarian, because some of it was vegetarian, because some of it contained pork, dairy products or non-organic beef, and because it was on too high a table (Snow White had dropped by with some of her staff). The carol singers had been booed off stage for being insufficiently inclusive of other religions. His karaoke selection of White Christmas was shouted down as being only for older people. And so many Little Helpers had smoked that, at £2,500 a head for failing to stop them, bankruptcy loomed.

Suppressed longing

Opening a door in search of fresh air, he had blundered instead into a cupboard. There, he had found Barbie and Ken, years of suppressed longing finally cast aside, each stripped naked and staring aghast at the other’s lack of genitalia. Fuelled by drink, the Lego crowd had gone to pieces and those Playmobil chaps lost their heads altogether.

Outside in the crisp Arctic air, two Little Helpers being led away from the wreckage of the sleigh in novelty handcuffs shouted slurred abuse at him for letting them drive while under the influence of too many chocolate liqueurs.

It was no wonder that the very next day he had cancelled the Christmas party, Santa concluded limply. It was for their own good.

There was a moment’s silence. The tribunal panel conferred. Then the chairman leaned forward. This was it, here it came. This is what came of trying to protect the finer feelings of his employees. Wretched little ingrates, the lot of them. He could have stayed in the City, perhaps not actually working, but certainly making a nice steady living applying for jobs he was not up to, and then making spurious age discrimination claims. Two or three thousand pounds a time to go away, all tax-free – that couldn’t be bad.

It had to be better than this, about to be strung up in red tape, pelted with mince pies and glitter and left to twist in the wind as a lesson to other employers.

Killing Christmas Spirit

“Mr Claus, we do find unanimously that you paid far more attention to the lawyers’ transparent attempts to drum up business than is at all proper for the time of year, and therefore that you are totally and utterly guilty of killing the Christmas Spirit. We also find, for reasons which we are not able to explain, that you are in breach of the statutory Dispute Resolution Procedures. As a result, it is our unanimous decision that you should be taken from here to a place…”

Suddenly Santa started, sitting bolt upright, covered in sweat, his heart pounding. The tribunal room vanished before him and he was back in his grotto study, slumped in his armchair. The whole thing had just been a terrible nightmare. Santa blamed the stilton. The Spice Girls calendar that he had taken from unwanted stock said that it was January 2008. It was all over – Christmas had survived another year.

David Whincup is partner and head of employment at law firm Hammonds

Comments are closed.