Managing the summer party madness

 In news, updates

What problems might arise, what should an employer do to head them off and how can it best protect itself from liability? Barry Stanton reports

Summer parties or evening drinks – with or without the added spice of international football – pose potential problems for employers. It is important that they understand the risks and outcomes that errant employees may cause; equally, HR teams do not want to be seen as having tarnished the atmosphere and the general lifting of spirits that accompanies well-run events.

All too often we hear stories of over-enthusiastically amorous employees, or those who have partaken in too much of the party spirit. Reminding staff of their responsibilities towards themselves, each other and members of the public, as well as the consequences of misbehaving, is important.

The greatest risk comes from events organised, sponsored or supported by an employer – whether before, immediately after or outside of work – which will be taken to be part of the employee’s work so far as liability goes for acts of discrimination.

This leaves companies open to discrimination claims by the wronged. In such an event, the employer may have a defence against such a claim, but only if it has taken such steps as were reasonably practical to prevent the employee committing the acts causing the complaint.

Equally, staff who misbehave place themselves at risk of disciplinary action, whether they are at their own work event or, worse, at a client event, where their misbehaviour may have serious repercussions for the employer’s ongoing relationship with the client.

Working relationships may be put under strain or potentially destroyed by inadvertent comments made when a manager’s guard is down, resulting in grievances that must be resolved.

Setting standards

Robust policies that set out employers’ expectations of the required standards of behaviour and the consequences arising from getting on the wrong side of the line have to be the starting point. However, simply having a policy will not protect companies from discrimination claims – more is needed.

Ideally, employers will have taken time and effort to bring the policies to their employees’ attention and discussed, on an ongoing basis, the expected standards of behaviour. If they have not, there is still time to bring these issues proactively to employees’ notice.

Employers should think carefully about their attitude to alcohol. Are they going to offer a free bar all night or is there going to be some form of regulation, with the employer refusing to serve those who are the worse for wear? While being drunk will not provide an employee with a defence to acts of misconduct, plying them with large quantities of alcohol that cause misconduct involving third parties may lead to at best negative publicity and at worst liability for the employee’s acts.

Equally, if the misbehaving employee is the best sales executive, that may make any ensuing disciplinary hearing and outcome more complicated if the company is trying to avoid a dismissal. How that employee is dealt with may have repercussions for how an employer must deal with others.

Finally, if there are known likely troublemakers, or likely offenders, it might be prudent to pay particular attention to them and remind them of their responsibilities and the consequences of misbehaving, although employers need to be careful not to overstep the mark and breach the implied term.

The main takeaway is that employers must properly prepare in advance for the handling of such situations and have measures in place to ensure staff are aware of the policies enforced by the company.

Barry Stanton is a partner and head of employment at Boyes Turner UK

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