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Chaos at the Christmas party - how to avoid an HR headache

08 December 2017

The festive season is almost upon us, bringing with it the long-awaited office Christmas party - a chance for colleagues to let their hair down and enjoy themselves in a relaxed setting.

Yet although generally being a great way to reward staff for their hard work, the combination of lowered inhibitions and copious alcohol can sometimes lead to trouble. This can be illustrated by an interesting case a couple of years ago involving a Christmas party going badly wrong (Westlake v ZSL London Zoo, ET/2201118/2015).

The llama keeper at the ZSL London Zoo (Mr Davies) had previously been in a relationship with one of the monkey specialists (Ms Saunders). They had broken up, however, and at the time of the incident Mr Davies was in a relationship with the meerkat handler (Ms Westlake). The Christmas party was held at the zoo, with employees given a drinks voucher as well as being able to purchase more drinks from the bar.

At the party, Ms Saunders and Ms Westlake got into a fight, which resulted in Ms Saunders being quite seriously injured after being hit in the face with a glass. Ms Westlake was also injured during the altercation. The company began its disciplinary procedure and ultimately decided that Ms Westlake would be dismissed, while Ms Saunders would be issued with a final warning and banned from future work events.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ms Westlake brought a claim for unfair dismissal based on the fact that her punishment had been much more severe than that for Ms Saunders. The Employment Tribunal found that there was insufficient evidence to determine who had initiated the fight, and concluded that the dismissal had indeed been unfair. It did, however, note that the zoo could have legitimately dismissed both employees or given them both final warnings.

This case amply demonstrates the perils of the Christmas party and potential risks for employers. Here are a few tips to help prevent anything similar occurring at your own party this year:

  • Be wary of the open bar – although often a perk of the event, employees drinking too much and making fools of themselves may argue that the company effectively condoned their behaviour by offering unlimited alcohol.
  • Ensure all employees have been given equal opportunities/diversity and anti-harassment training (and retain evidence of this).
  • Have a clear policy on what standard of behaviour is acceptable at work events of this kind, and consider issuing a statement to employees in advance of the party reminding them of possible conduct issues.
  • If misconduct such as that in Westlake v ZSL does unfortunately occur, make sure to carry out a reasonable and thorough investigation before taking any disciplinary action.

While most office parties will be an enjoyable experience for everyone, you can go a long way towards preventing potential HR headaches by putting clear and effective clear policies in place well in advance of the festivities.

Merry Christmas!

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