Business Brief: The Christmas Party

Last Updated Dec 4, 2009 11:13 AM EST

Nick Hine, partner at law firm Thomas Eggar, responds to your employment law questions:

We're preparing to have our Christmas office party, which I expect to be a lively affair, as we've all worked very hard to stay afloat for the last 12 months and this is the first chance staff have had to let their hair down at the company's expense. I'm worried that things may get out of hand and people might be offended by a few likely suspects' behaviour. As a manager, what should I do to protect my company from any potential legal action?
-- Name witheld
It is likely that your firm has an Equal Opportunities and Anti-Harassment Policy. This will usually set out phrases and explanations of what behaviour is and is not acceptable so that everyone is treated equally and to state that discriminatory behaviour will not be tolerated.

The problem is it is not what those discriminating think, it is actually the person on the receiving end of the joke or unpolitically correct activity or antic which is important.

If they find such antics offensive, then it may well be possible that discriminatory activity is taking place, for which the employer may be responsible.

An employer is vicariously liable for the acts of its employees and therefore may be liable for permitting the discriminatory action unless they can demonstrate they took all reasonable steps to prevent the activity from taking place.

This is normally dealt with through policies, training and it is not just having a policy which will meet the defence, but also demonstrating that this is proactively enforced within the organisation.

Therefore as a manger if you are aware of such activity taking place then employees need to be reminded of the equal opportunities policies and the fact that such activities should not take place and that anyone found to be acting in such a manner will face disciplinary action.

If there are certain individuals whom the employer knows are conducting this sort of activity, then in addition to reminding all employees of the policies, they should be spoken to in no uncertain terms.

If you have any questions you'd like to put to Nick, email us at editorial@bnet.co.uk