Friday 20 September 2019

Staff behaving badly at office Christmas party could leave employers footing bigger bill

It may be the season of goodwill, but sexual harassment, bullying and free drink can create toxic results – and employers are liable even if it’s not happening at the office.
It may be the season of goodwill, but sexual harassment, bullying and free drink can create toxic results – and employers are liable even if it’s not happening at the office.
Donal O'Donovan

Donal O'Donovan

High jinks at the staff Christmas party could leave business owners picking up a bigger bill than just the beer tab, the Small Firms Association (SFA) has warned.

It may be the season of goodwill, but sexual harassment, bullying and free drink can create toxic results - and employers are liable even if it's not happening at the office.

The employers' group has advised owners of small businesses to take pre-emptive action to stop things getting out of hand.

Misbehaviour or mishaps involving staff can end up having to be paid for by companies, even if it doesn't happen on company time.

"An employer can be held liable for anything done by the employee in the course of employment. In this regard, a work-related event is seen as an extension of the workplace and it is important that employers and employees are aware of their obligations from the outset," SFA director Patricia Callan said.

The employers' group said before a party started was a good time to remind everyone of employment policies around discipline, bullying, harassment and social media. Those rules all still apply at work-related social events, it said.

"Staff parties can show our employees deserved appreciation at the end of a busy year. We all understand the benefits of a social outing on team-building too. However, these social events also have the potential to provide a context for inappropriate behaviour that could have serious repercussions," Ms Callan said.

"The SFA has received many calls to date from members who are dealing with complaints from employees following the Christmas party in particular grievances, harassment and sexual harassment concerns.

"It is advised employers take action on these complaints without delay and follow company procedures in the normal way. Previous case law has shown the Equality Tribunal was extremely critical of complaints not being followed up by a company as the issue arose at the Christmas party.

"It is also important to bear in mind that if a manager witnessed an incident or altercation that they should be excluded from conducting the formal investigation into the matter in line with fair procedures."

If businesses were paying for staff drinks, then vouchers were a better option than a free bar, which may encourage excessive drinking, the SFA said. Regular food was a good idea too.

"Taking the above action in advance will greatly assist employers navigate their way through the Christmas party season without any serious repercussions," she said.

Irish Independent

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