Our employers’ guide to Christmas party fallout

Eleanor Rogers


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December 6, 2022

Categories Employment Law

Christmas parties are a great chance for employees to have fun together and for employers thank their staff for their hard work during the year. An unintended consequence can be that employees get carried away. What can employers can do when differences seem irreconcilable, to minimise the fallout from the Christmas party?

No team is harmonious all the time, but sometimes working relationships can deteriorate to such an extent that employers may need to take drastic steps to resolve the situation. A breakdown in working relationships can be damaging to productivity, individual performance, and team morale.

An Employment Tribunal is likely to see the Christmas party as falling within the ambit of employment, thereby making the employer vicariously liable for the fall out of any such bad behaviour, in the form of grievances, claims and damaged relationships. Depending on the underlying issues, the employer may be at risk of being liable for an employee’s actions, for example bullying resulting in a constructive unfair dismissal or a discrimination claim against the employer.

Avoiding fallout from the work Christmas party

Pre-planning is key. There are many practical steps employers can take to avoid fall out:

  • Review your policies and procedures to ensure they are fit for purpose, and assess any risk.
  • Ensure that those attending know and understand the polices and procedures. Be clear in advance to staff that certain behaviours will not be tolerated and that the equalities policies still apply to after work events. Also, if there is a risk of problematic absenteeism the next day, a gentle reminder of the potential disciplinary outcomes could be helpful.
  • Get managers on board to ensure they model appropriate behaviour. If not, any subsequent disciplinary action could be challenged as inconsistent and unfair. Task managers with keeping a clear head and putting anyone in a taxi if their behaviour gets out of hand.
  • Be mindful of the flow of alcohol, especially if it is free. Always have food and plenty of other non-alcoholic drink options available.
  • Ensure that no one is left out of the festivities, to limit arguments of discrimination. Perhaps a new year party would be more inclusive? Make the theme inclusive so all can enjoy by providing food options for special diets like vegan or gluten-free and non-alcoholic drinks. If you invite plus ones, make sure the invitation is extended in an inclusive manner, such as to “partners” and not just “wives or husbands”.

Grievances and breakdown in relationships

If an employee brings a grievance against another employee or their manager, it is important not to ignore it. They should be investigated properly. Sadly, relationships often become strained in these circumstances.

Should we move one employee?

It may be clear from something the complainant said, or their actions, that being around the person named in their grievance is likely to make them distressed. It may be necessary to temporarily separate the employees while an investigation is carried out, particularly if the grievance involves allegations of bullying or harassment. This could involve a change of team or location or change in reporting lines if the complaint is about the line manager.

If there is another team or location to move to, who should move? The options:

1. Should we move the complainant?

Automatically moving the complainant could amount to victimisation and this could compound feelings of being isolated or side-lined. It may also signal to other employees that the employer is not supportive of employees raising grievances. This in turn may prevent a light being shone on pockets of unacceptable culture within the organisation; with associated risks of Tribunal claims and a detrimental impact on employee retention.

2. Should we move the alleged perpetrator?

However, moving the employee named in the grievance could make that person feel the employer has prejudged that they are culpable. The worst-case scenario is that the move has a detrimental impact, for example if it is effectively a demotion, and the employee resigns claiming constructive unfair dismissal or alleges that they were moved for a discriminatory reason.

3. The solution

To navigate this quagmire, employers should be guided by operational reasons when deciding who to move. This decision needs to be explained to the employees. If it is not possible to separate the two employees and the allegations are sufficiently serious, the option of last resort is to suspend the alleged perpetrator while the investigation is promptly carried out.

What can we do if relations do not improve?

Even if the outcome of a fair grievance process is that the grievance was unfounded, the working relationship may not improve. In some cases, the grievance can trigger a breakdown in relations. Colleagues may feel unable to work with or manage the complainant.

The options available will depend upon the size of organisation, but employers should consider all feasible solutions. This could involve one employee agreeing to an internal transfer or different reporting lines, although similar considerations apply as with the temporary separation. We can advise you on managing the specific risks. Suggesting mediation is often an important step, although one or both employees may be reluctant and cannot be forced into this.

Is dismissal an option?

If things do not improve, it may be that working relationships have irretrievably broken down. If this is having a detrimental impact, it may be time to consider dismissal, but only as a last resort. The law gives employers five potentially fair reasons for dismissal:

  1. Conduct;
  2. Capability;
  3. Redundancy;
  4. Statutory Restriction; and
  5. Some Other Substantial Reason.

Some Other Substantial Reason (or SOSR) is little used, but could be helpful here. Where there is an irretrievable breakdown in relationships, it may be fair to dismiss the employee for SOSR. Although it sounds like a flexible basis for dismissal, Tribunals scrutinise SOSR dismissals, so it should be used with caution. Furthermore it is likely to be outside your usual policies. We can advise you on how to follow a fair procedure. We strongly recommend speaking to us before going down this route to help you manage the risks.

How we can help

We have a wealth of experience in managing tricky situations involving difficult employee relationships. We can find practical solutions that minimise the risks to your business and the use of management time.
Season’s Greetings to you all!

For further information, please contact Eleanor Rogers in the Employment Team on 01227 763939 or email er@furleypage.co.uk

Please note: This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice.