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It started with a kiss ...

The office party is an opportunity for all employees to relax and enjoy themselves with their colleagues. It is one of the few occasions at work when the management hierarchy is regarded as less important by some and individual inhibitions are banished.

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The office party is an opportunity for all employees to relax and enjoy themselves with their colleagues. It is one of the few occasions at work when the management hierarchy is regarded as less important by some and individual inhibitions are banished. For many this is the highlight of the working year where for several hours, whether on the company premises or elsewhere, the office Christmas ‘do' can be the time when employees feel sufficiently brazen enough to ‘mix it' with the MD or a colleague who they've fancied for the whole of the previous year, but were too frightened to do anything about it - until now! Employees should be cautioned against believing that the office Christmas party gives them licence to get drunk and behave badly. Hanging up the mistletoe may be symbolic and could mean just a quick innocent kiss under it, but this party mood does not excuse excessive, offensive or highly suggestive behaviour towards other staff. Furthermore, the image of your company can be tarnished in the eyes of outsiders by its employees' conduct at the office party, especially when held away from the company premises. You also need to consider how employees are getting home afterwards, one area is ensuring no drink/driving because if an employee has an accident on the way home from an office party where you supplied the alcohol, you could be deemed careless if it results in a prosecution. Employers also have to appreciate that they can potentially be liable for the antics of their staff, and case law demonstrates that an employer's liability can extend to office parties taking place offsite and outside normal working hours. One of the main concerns for employers is the possibility that an employee may allege harassment. When alcohol is flowing and a social event is under way, jokes get told, personal remarks are made and often individuals are singled out for particular attention. If fun is made at someone's expense because of their personal characteristics or attributes, this could lead to unlawful discrimination. You must also ensure that, if you employ office juniors, that they are not plied with alcohol as they could be underage drinkers. Unfortunately, the result of festive antics that have turned sour as a result of the combination of alcohol and enjoyment can leave you with having to sort it out the next working day. Also with these fun activities comes the harsh reality about hangover-related absences. It is expected that two million workers are likely to take time off through over-indulgence. A female solicitor at the investment bank Merrill Lynch was appalled when a senior lawyer at the bank made ‘disgusting and lewd' comments to her after the office Christmas party in 2003. The senior manager spilt red wine down her top and then made inappropriate comments about her breasts. She was not happy with the way the company handled the matter and sued them for sexual harassment, victimisation and constructive dismissal. However before the full employment tribunal she accepted an out of court settlement which is reported to have been £1million! Two thirds of employers have admitted to sacking a member of staff as a result of their behaviour at a Christmas party. It does not have to be just at the Christmas party itself, but during the festive season, such as when a senior manager at the Trustee Savings Bank was found by a cleaner with a female clerk in the training room on Christmas eve and was dismissed. However, he won a case for unfair dismissal as he claimed they had merely been discussing work! Whilst many employers are now dropping the traditional festival celebrations to avoid any complications, don't let all this put you off. All you need to do is put thought into the management of the party and put guidance out about what the expected behaviour is and ensuring that everyone is fully aware of what will and will not be tolerated. On a positive note, the Christmas party can foster team spirit and provide an opportunity for staff to chat to some colleagues they might not ordinarily come into contact with. It can also be a chance for management to pay tribute to all the staff for their efforts over the year. About the author Carol Ann Guilford, FCIPD is Director of HR Solutions Limited, an HR consultancy with over 20 years experience. They offer a wealth and variety of experiences to draw upon to provide valued professional, practical 'hands on' advice and support. HR Solutions has associate consultants and contacts that can provide an integrated 'one stop shop' of HR support for all your needs.

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