When good times go bad: dealing with the aftermath of the Christmas party!

We hope that if you follow our advice, all will go smoothly at your Staff Christmas party but, even with the best planning in the world, things can still go wrong – so how do you deal with the fallout?

If an employer receives a report of an incident following a Staff Christmas party, or any other social event, they should take it seriously and investigate the matter as soon as they are made aware of it.  If an employer fails to conduct a proper investigation, this can lead to problems if they are challenged further down the line.  In one recent tribunal case, for example, a bar manager suffered facial paralysis from a chokehold inflicted on her by another work colleague during a Christmas night out. She carried on working with him for several months until she decided to complain to her boss in March.  At this point, the employer refused to investigate the incident, despite shocking CCTV footage from the bar where the party was held. An employment tribunal, therefore, found that she had been unfairly dismissed after she was forced to resign, because her bosses repeatedly brushed aside her complaints and failed to investigate them.  

Where there is more than one employee involved in an incident, it is important that both employees are treated consistently.  Establishing “who is to blame”, however, can be difficult where memories are blurred by alcohol and the evidence is unclear.  In Westlake v ZSL London Zoo, two zoo keepers got into a fight at London Zoo’s Christmas party as a result of which, Ms Westlake was dismissed and the other zoo keeper, Ms Sanders, was issued with a final written warning.  Given the lack of clear evidence as to who started the fight, the employment tribunal found Ms Westlake’s dismissal to be unfair.  The tribunal observed that the employer could have legitimately dismissed them both, or issued both with final written warnings.

It is not uncommon for staff to be late or absent on the day after the Christmas party.  Employers should only take disciplinary action if their staff have been informed in advance that this is a possibility.  An employer will be entitled to make deductions from in employees’ pay in the event that they do not turn up for work, or arrive late, as long as this is provided for in their contracts of employment and the deduction does not take them below the National Minimum Wage.

One option might be to ensure that the employees in question have, in advance of the party, signed a separate document that clearly indicates their agreement to a quantifiable deduction being made in these specific circumstances. Another alternative would be to offer an attendance allowance to encourage workers not to take time off sick, as the retailer Argos has reportedly done in its distribution centres.  However, such practices carry the serious risk of an indirect disability discrimination complaint that may be difficult to justify.

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