It’s the season to be friendly to your work colleagues and go out into the dark December day for that office party – but lurking in the world of festive celebration there are now more dangers than just a collective hangover.
The cocktail of seasonal celebration and staff having a few drinks or more together before they take their Christmas break is no longer an innocent matter of an office letting its hair down.
Accounting and business services firms now have to take extra precautions when organising office parties as more legal cases are appearing in the courts connected with what is considered an acceptable way for employees to behave.
This summer 56-year-old chief executive Jim Hodkinson of the high-street fashion chain New Look was sacked from his #600,000 a year post, after he touched a female personnel officer on the bottom and made lewd suggestions at a black tie event.
Although the businessman admitted he was wrong, he said his actions were just a case of drunken ‘tomfoolery’.
Hodkinson’s case is not isolated, with the Equal Opportunities Commission investigating up to 50 sexual harassment enquiries a month, and employees now more aware than ever that they could be liable for office parties that go wrong.
Last January a senior army officer was alleged to have groped female members of staff at a Christmas party which sparked an investigation by military police into ‘behaviour unbecoming of that rank’.
And a 53-year-old university professor earlier this year also had to step down after he came under investigation from the institute’s officials after complaints about jokes he told at a philosophy department’s Christmas party.
The common thread among many headline cases concerning sexual harassment is alcohol – and the Christmas party emerges as a potentially explosive situation where normal inhibitions are eroded.
Employment lawyers at Osborne Clarke estimate that as many as 1,000 assault and sexual harassment cases could have been launched following the millennium Christmas and new year celebration, with awards that now can range up to #15,000.
National head of employment, Nicholas Moore, says: ‘We certainly had a crop of extra cases this year, but this is also linked to an increasing awareness among employees as well as the level of celebration.’
In March, the case of city banker Kay Swinburne hit the headlines following a #1m out-of-court settlement from Deutsche Bank, after she resigned from her job following months of sexual harassment from her boss who referred to women as ‘hot totty’ and ‘bit of skirt’.
When Swinburne raised concerns that female hostesses were invited to the office Christmas party, she was told she was overacting and ridiculed.
The central London Employment Tribunal found the bank guilty of sex discrimination, breach of contract and constructive dismissal.
The size of settlements in the UK have however not yet caught up with the United States. Six years ago a New York secretary won more than $3m from law firm Baker & McKenzie after she alleged that one of the partners placed sweets in her shirt pocket, groped her breast and pulled her arms back ‘to see which breast was bigger’.
UK employment experts are now focusing on the case of the chief constable of Lincolnshire Police, which many claim could make the traditional office party a no-go area for cautious employers.
A constabulary Christmas party led to a female detective constable bringing allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination against her direct senior, who she said had made repeated comments about her legs and hosiery and pestered her to sleep with him.
When the tribunal assessed compensation at #184,000, the offender was ordered to pay just #1,500 – and the chief constable faced the rest of the claim because an employer is vicariously responsible for events that are connected to work.
The tribunal pointed to Section 41(1) of the Sex Discrimination Act which states: ‘Anything done by a person in the course of his employment shall be treated as done by his employer as well as by him, whether or not it was done with the employer’s knowledge or approval.’
An Employment Appeal Tribunal later upheld the decision and said that social gatherings are extensions of the workplace and come under the definition of ‘course of employment’.
Managing director John Seigel of the Lincolnshire-based Lloyds Employment Law Centre, which advises businesses how to protect themselves against tribunals, believes employers should now err on the extreme side of caution.
‘Companies have to be aware of the potential dangers connected with putting on an office party,’ Seigel says. ‘Come January, there will be a surge again in the number of businesses who are concerned about their liability for sexual harassment or drunken brawls at Christmas and new year events.
‘Our advice to any firm, however small, is simple: don’t organise Christmas parties – and if staff want to go out and celebrate memo them saying the company is in no way involved in the event.’
Scrooge may have found business conditions in the 21st century just right for his take on employment relations at Christmas – but the office party looks likely for the moment to continue into this century.
A spokesman for Ernst & Young was more level headed about the pitfalls of the season. ‘We take the view that our employees are adults and are responsible for their own behaviour. The emphasis is on fun at a Christmas do – and I think most people are capable of enjoying and behaving themselves and waking up the next morning with few regrets.’
For those with a long view on celebrations, our Christmas period was also the Roman midwinter festival Saturnalia – famed as a time of debauchery and sexual depravity.
THE NIGHT BEFORE THE MORNING AFTER
Top 10 Office Christmas Party Regrets
– Insulting a senior colleague
– Obnoxious drunken behaviour
– Telling colleagues a few home truths
– Colleagues remembering those home truths the next day
– Being sick in public
– Learning intimate details of a colleague’s sex life
– Experiencing intimate details of a colleague’s sex life
– Fighting with other members of staff
– Being caught on camera
– Causing damage to the venue
FACE THE MUSIC
A survey carried out by OfficeSmart, the international office suppliers, makes sober reading. A huge 93% had experienced embarrassing behaviour from professional colleagues and over half reported arguments breaking out. More than one in three people also knew or had experienced recriminations because of an incident at a Christmas party, including employees being fired or forced to leave the company.
And 29% of people had regrets about something they had done at a recent office party.
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