Spotlight on: post-party fallout

It’s January, and everyone is back at their desks. But for a few tired revellers it won’t just be a hangover they are nursing after their behaviour at the Christmas party. Some may be hauled into a disciplinary meeting after overstepping the mark with a colleague, or even breaking the law.

Sarah Smith, an account manager at a London PR agency, remembers the Christmas party her company held in central London last year. “One of our account managers and his client, who he’d been flirting with all year, decided to give in to their alcohol-fuelled passion. Unfortunately, they were leaning against double doors, which opened on to a flight of stairs. Our guy tumbled down them spectacularly, and the client was revealed lying on the floor half naked.

Disciplined

“We found it highly amusing until the next day, when our account manager was taken off the account and disciplined. The chief executive of the client company threatened to remove their business, and the venue banned all of us from its premises.”

The Chartered Management Institute’s annual Christmas Outlook survey found that, 12 months ago, 31% of employers blamed discrimination legislation for a lack of Christmas spirit and willingness to hold parties, while 21% blamed fear of potential tribunals. Yet, when asked how many complaints they had faced this year in the wake of workplace parties, 82% could not identify a single incident.

Apologise

Steve Williams, head of equality and diversity of Acas, says its helpline gets calls from staff who are expecting a reprimand after their behaviour at Christmas.

“Most people realise they have overstepped the mark,” he said. “If you think you have done something wrong, apologise. Apologising might not recover the situation, but it might make the victim less inclined to pursue a grievance.”

Admonishing someone who has spent the Christmas break agonising over the fact that they photocopied parts of their anatomy at the Christmas party needs sensitivity, says Laura Campbell, HR manager of young people’s organisation Changemakers.

Warnings

“I would try my hardest to avoid giving a formal warning over something that happened at an office party, particularly if it was referred to me as hearsay rather than something I had seen myself,” she says.

“Dignity and livers are generally what gets most damaged, and the embarrassment factor has probably already had more of a salutary effect. I would hold an informal meeting with the person concerned if possible.

“If it was something more serious, like wilful damage or abusive behaviour, then I would not hesitate to apply our disciplinary procedure. You need to take the party atmosphere into account, but boundaries are boundaries, and if behaviour would cause raised eyebrows on a night out with friends, then it needs dealing with officially,” she concludes.

How to… handle the party offender

  • If an accusation of bad behaviour has been levelled at an employee, gather evidence thoroughly, particularly if the evidence is hearsay and alcohol was involved.
  • If you are not sure about the validity of the accusation, keep the process informal.
  • Use common sense – just because it was Christmas does not mean that harassment was OK.
  • Ensure you understand your policies and what they cover.
  • Don’t be too heavy-handed – the employee has probably already suffered considerably over the holidays as it is.
  • Be fair – if you have talked about ‘relaxing the rules at Christmas’, your employees may have misunderstood.

Source: Matt Jenkin, head of employment, Thames Valley, at Morgan Cole

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