Employment Law expert warns of the potential pitfalls surrounding office Christmas parties and says: “Remember: you’re not working – but you’re still at work!”

With the festive season drawing near, offices are buzzing with talk of the hottest event of the year – the Christmas party! Whether it’s what to wear, who to kiss under the mistletoe or discussions over if there will be a free bar, it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement of the impending celebrations.
However, as Ian Dawson, Employment Law expert at Shulmans Solicitors warns, festive antics at the office party can have serious implications well beyond a red-faced walk through the office the next morning.

Ian said: “The Christmas party is often the only work event that embraces everyone from the boardroom to the factory floor, so employees place a lot of emphasis on making the most of the festivities. However, they often forget that their contract of employment still stands, even when the office party is held off work premises.

This means all clauses in their contract such as confidentiality, discipline, harassment and discrimination still exist yet within a context where plenty of often free alcohol is consumed, causing staff to lose their inhibitions and discuss typically taboo subjects more openly with colleagues.”
It is not only employees who need to be on guard either, as employers can also find themselves in hot water when arranging festive celebrations both in and out of the office.

Ian continued: “It is important that employers are being inclusive to all staff. For example, some employees may not celebrate Christmas for religious reasons and if a free work’s Christmas party is being provided that they cannot attend, then an alternative may need to be considered for those individuals.

“Secret Santa gifts have also been known to cause problems for employers. One notable example is of a heterosexual male who received a woman’s negligée as a present because people in the office often ribbed him about being a little camp in his mannerisms. The issue had to be investigated on grounds relating to discrimination so in this case, what had intended to be a joke, actually had the opposite effect.”

With the stresses of work, it is hard not to get wrapped up in Christmas fever but when getting involved in any festive activities or events this year, it is always important to remember, you’re not doing work but you’re still at work!

· Make inappropriate jokes, such as your boss being Father Christmas because he only seems to work one day a year. Never say anything you wouldn’t be entirely comfortable with saying at 9am in the office.
· Wear your most revealing outfit or comedy slogan t shirt. Check the dress code first and remember, revealing too much flesh may offend some colleagues, and your idea of a jokey t shirt may be someone else’s idea of an offensive remark.
· Get blind drunk. Falling over the boss then vomiting into the punch is likely to involve you in disciplinary action.
· Think it would be hilarious to give inappropriate gifts for the Secret Santa exchange of presents, such as a bag of pork scratchings to a Jewish colleague. The recipient might not be offended, but other colleagues could be and this could still land you in trouble under the law.

· Remember that bringing illegal substances to the party to “make it go with a swing” is likely to be a career-ending move.
· Avoid all controversial conversation topics: sex, politics and religion. All three are likely to get you into trouble, no matter how like-minded you may consider your colleagues.
· Be tolerant and respectful of those who don’t celebrate Christmas. And if you’re an employer, remember – you may have to arrange an alternative event to avoid allegations of discrimination on religious grounds.
· Bosses: you have a duty of care towards all your employees. Make sure everyone has the means to get home safely.