A Plain English Guide To British Employment Law

Navigating your office’s Christmas party

by Adena Graham (https://adenagraham.carbonmade.com/).

It’s that time of year again when work halls are decked with boughs of holly and co-workers abandon their work attire for glad-rags. But while work parties can be great for bonding, boosting morale and getting to know your workmates better, the same employment legislation that protects both you and your colleagues year-round is still in force during your office knees-up.

What happens if I’m harassed by someone at the office party?

If a course of behaviour or conversation is unacceptable at 10am on a Monday morning, it doesn’t suddenly become okay just because it’s 10pm, off-site and at the office Christmas party. Sexist, racist and ageist jokes or hectoring conduct is not acceptable.

Harassment, which is defined in the Equality Act 2010, can be verbal or non-verbal, ongoing or a one-off. The key test is how the victim is made to feel by the behaviour. If you experience any conduct at the hands of a colleague that makes you feel vulnerable, uncomfortable or victimised, report it to your boss or a member of HR the following day, as employers are responsible for the actions of their employees.

From an employer’s point of view, it’s also worth sending out a company-wide email prior to any gathering, reminding workers of the standard of conduct that’s expected – along with behaviours that won’t be tolerated.

Can I skip work if I’m hungover the next day?

Again, the rule of thumb is anything that would be deemed unacceptable during the rest of the year, remains unacceptable at Christmas. Many employers will remind staff of sickness and absence policies and will make clear that missing work due to having imbibed a bit too much the night before could result in disciplinary procedures. Clever employers often hold their Christmas party on a Friday. Generally, it’s best to drink in moderation at your office party and make sure you turn up the next day – able to function and perform your workplace duties.

My religion precludes me from drinking alcohol – am I likely to feel excluded?

The Equality Act offers protection of race and religious beliefs. To this end, employers need to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone will wish to drink alcohol, and they should provide alternatives, such as soft drinks and mocktails. Your employer has a duty to make any event as inclusive as possible, and if you feel you’ve been discriminated against, due to a lack of alternative drink options, this is a matter to raise with HR.

The same holds true of dietary arrangements during an office party, and employers should provide a range of options to cater for all dietary needs (religious or otherwise) – so one might expect vegetarian or non-dairy options to be available so as to not exclude any employees.

My party invite says I can bring my wife, but I’m gay. Can I bring my civil partner?

Your employer must not discriminate against you on the grounds of sexual orientation and needs to be mindful of the fact that invites must be open to all – regardless of your partner’s gender. A quiet word with your boss may be enough to set the matter straight. However, if you feel you’re deliberately being discriminated against, you can complain to your organisation and may be able to make a discrimination claim in the civil courts.

The key to any successful office party is respect – and for colleagues and employers to treat you how you would expect during your regular working week.

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