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    A Costly Hangover for the Employer: Christmas Parties

    The office Christmas party has become a way for Employers to say thank you to their staff for their hard work and commitment during the year, boost staff morale, and an opportunity for staff and employers to bond.

    With Christmas just around the corner, Employers are now turning their thoughts to preparing for the Christmas party, but how many employers will consider they maybe faced with the employment law hangover the following day, with complaints of harassment, discrimination and fall-outs often attributed to the increase in alcohol intake throughout the evening.

    In the case of Nixon v Ross Coates Solicitors, Ross Coates Solicitors in Ipswich employed Miss Nixon in a business development role. She was in a relationship with Mr Perrin, who was employed as a Solicitor. During the Christmas party organised by Mr Coates, Ms Nixon was seen kissing the I.T. manager, Mr Wright, and at the end of the evening they were seen leaving together.

    Following the Christmas party, Ms Nixon was away on holiday. She was ill and as a result she did not return to work until 29 January. By this point her colleagues were aware that she was pregnant. The HR manager made a suggestion about the paternity of the baby and rumors started to spread. Mr Nixon refused to work in the Ipswich office and asked for a transfer, and subsequently raised a grievance. Following the request of Mr Coates to return to the Ipswich office, Ms Nixon resigned when she was not paid from February to the 15th March.

    The ET dismissed Ms Nixon’s claim for sex and pregnancy discrimination, and harassment. They upheld her complaint for constructive dismissal. The EAT overturned the Employment Tribunal’s findings on sex and pregnancy discrimination. The EAT found that the gossip was connected with the pregnancy and it did constitute harassment. The failure of her employers to transfer her to a different office also amounted to discrimination. The case was remitted back to the ET. We expect that the employers reached an out of court settlement in the absence of any further judgments.

    In a recently reported case of MBNA v Jones, Mr Jones was dismissed after physical and verbal altercations against another employee during the bank’s 20th anniversary celebrations. His colleague who was also involved in the incident was only given a written warning. The ET found that Mr Jones’s dismissal was unfair on the basis that different provocation tests were applied to both, and therefore there was a disparity of treatment.

    The bank succeeded on appeal to the EAT. The EAT agreed that the circumstances for the two employees were sufficiently different so that the disparity in the treatment would not be relevant in accessing Mr Jones’s dismissal. Whilst the bank succeeded this was a costly exercise for the bank and Mr Coates.

    Employers can minimize the risk by considering the following:

    • being aware that they can be held vicariously liable for the actions of their employees at office parties, if those actions are deemed to have been committed during the course of employment.
    • Distinguish between social events, which are unlikely to result in vicarious liability.
    • Plan and take reasonable steps to prevent employees from carrying out acts, which may give rise to employment claims.
    • Prepare and provide clear policies on standards of behavior, and conduct which is unacceptable.
    • Consider a Christmas party statement.
    • Communicate to staff the consequences of breaching these policies. statement.
    • Appoint managers to monitor activities during the Christmas party.
    • Remove any mistletoe and plan any secret Santa gifts carefully.

    If you have any further questions or concern about the law of employment, you can find out how Wildings Solicitors can help on our service page.


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