HR professionals have been warned they must discipline office Christmas party-goers who step out of line – or risk being sued.
Greg Campbell, head of employment at law firm Faegre & Benson, said companies needed to be seen to enforce a strict policy at festive bashes.
Conciliation service Acas last week alarmed employers when it published its guidance on managing Christmas parties to avoid employment tribunal claims. It warned that raffling a bottle of champagne could offend Muslims, modern music could upset older workers, and decorations must undergo health and safety assessments.
The Forum of Private Business told a national newspaper that these guidelines were scaring employers into cancelling company Christmas parties. And a survey of almost 5,000 firms by employment law consultancy Peninsula BusinessWise showed that nine in 10 organisations were not having Christmas parties this year.
Campbell said: “The Christmas party is covered by the same law as the office. But the employer is only liable if it has not done everything it reasonably could have done to prevent breaches of law.”
HR staff can cover their firms against legal action by having a clear conduct policy, making sure staff are aware of it, and cracking down on any breaches of it, he added.
“Any employee doing anything sexist, homophobic or racist – even as a joke – must be disciplined,” said Campbell. “That kind of humour is banned – that’s why you don’t see Bernard Manning on TV any more.”
When Christmas parties go wrong
The main problems arising for employers at Christmas parties are “men getting drunk and fighting other men” and “men getting drunk and putting their hands up girls’ skirts”, according to Campbell.
But the most memorable incident he has dealt with was when two employees put laxatives in the office water cooler during their office party. They were both sacked by the company, so no legal action was taken.