We’ve all heard of the unfortunate incidents at the office party at Christmas time, I’m sure. And just think about the film Love Actually. Again you might say "surely it doesn’t happen in the third sector?" Photocopying parts of our anatomy and emailing them to the finance team? Throwing up in the pot plant? Starting an affair with the attractive person in HR (why not pick my own department)? Or, my favourite scenario: at the Christmas dinner someone cosies up to HR and starts telling you about a very unfortunate incident they heard about, which, if true, constitutes harassment, but they’ll only tell you if you keep it confidential. There’s my vegetarian lasagne ruined. Oh dear, oh dear, you sheltered fools…
No one wants to be a killjoy, but a few things can and do happen that we should just prepare for.
The most common issues that crop up concern harassment, alcohol, travel disruption and the old chestnut of affairs in the office.
The Equality Act 2010 makes employers liable for acts of discrimination, harassment and victimisation carried out by their employees in the course of their employment, unless they can show that they took reasonable steps to prevent such acts.
So does the office party constitute "in the course of employment"? Yes, it very much does, whether on work premises or not. A police officer complained of sexual harassment by a colleague outside a pub where a works leaving party had been held. The Employment Appeal Tribunal said that "social events away from the police station involving officers from work either immediately after work, or for an organised leaving party fell within the remit of 'course of employment'". So the employer was held liable for the harassment.
If you are having a lunchtime or end-of-the-working-day "do" with alcohol, be very, very clear about expectations about going back to work after having had a drink. An employer could be prosecuted for a breach of health and safety legislation and could be liable for damages if an employee or third party is injured as a result of an employee being under the influence of alcohol. We do employ people who drive for work.
Travel disruption because of bad weather is just one of those things. We need to see some give and take on the part of those who can easily get in and those who can't. But it musn’t turn into a one-way street. Allow work from home where possible and, if it becomes a problem, maybe the person snowed in in the middle of Derbyshire will have to use some of their annual leave to cover their time away from work – or do lots of overtime in January.
Affairs in the office can be difficult at any time, especially if one or both parties have a regular partner, but a Christmas fling can put a damper on the atmosphere. We need to be adult about this, but staff have to realise that if their personal lives are affecting the general office environment or work performance, this might be picked up as part of a performance management issue. Some workplaces have relationships at work policies, and the worst-case scenario is that one person might lose their job if the relationship is either disruptive or might lead to potential breaches of trust or confidence.
Gill Taylor is a sector HR consultant