December parties 2023
It’s that time of year again. Trees, tinsel, present-buying, fake snow… and trying to ensure the office party doesn’t result in an HR nightmare.
The intention might simply be fun and games, a chance for the team to relax at the end of a tough year. But employers know that if they organise a party (billed as “Christmas” or otherwise) it is seen in law as an extension of the workplace and employers can be vicariously liable for the actions of employers because they are deemed ‘in the course of employment’. Add alcohol to the mix and the risk of grievances, disciplinaries or harassment claims begins to rise. Thanks to the recent Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Act 2023, the onus on UK employers is set to become even more stringent.
Sexual harassment in the workplace
According to a recent Fawcett Society article, sexual harassment is experienced by a large proportion of the workforce over the course of their career. A celebratory event that includes alcohol is a classic set of circumstances for such harassment to occur – it may start with so-called harmless banter, maybe some unasked-for ‘casual’ physical contact; add in some mistletoe and relaxed boundaries and the hangover for the employer can be a sexual assault claim for which they may be indirectly liable.
Now, thanks to new legislation, employers will have to take an even more proactive role.
Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Act 2023
Enacted on 27 October, this new law aims to provide better protection from workplace harassment and sexual harassment, shifting the emphasis from ‘responsibility and redress’ to ‘prevention’. The Act places a new duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent the sexual harassment of employees.
The law also allows employment tribunals to increase compensation by up to 25% if an employer is deemed to have breached the new requirement.
What are ‘reasonable steps’?
Good question. Specifically, it’s hard to say for sure until the new legislation is applied through a tribunal case and we begin to get some established interpretation and case law. However, best HR practice would include:
- Have a clear, zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy in place, with an established system for review to ensure it remains up to date.
- Ensure all employees are aware of the policy’s contents and their own responsibilities under it (this may require some form of awareness training).
- Ensure that there is a mechanism (a register, for example) for reporting harassment complaints and that all employees understand how to make a complaint and (especially in the case of managers) deal with one. (Maintaining a register has data protection implications around security, lawful need, and access).
- When organising the event/party/do, be clear that the occasion counts as ‘work activity’ and all employees must behave accordingly.
- Consider whether specific roles or circumstances (for example, Christmas parties!) carry specific risks of sexual harassment occurring. Measures taken to minimise such identified risks are likely to be considered in a tribunal case. Risk assessment is crucial.
- And if someone does make a complaint – take it seriously, and address it in line with the stated policy and the law.
The Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Act doesn’t come into force until October 2024 but compliance can start now. The earlier (new?) norms are established for team celebrations, the more accepted they will be and the less likely an incident will occur.
Of course, during any festive season – and especially at the end of the year – employers want to reward employees and acknowledge their hard work. A party can be a great idea. It’s only sensible to be aware of the latest legal framework and the potential for things to go wrong – that way, you can better organise a memorable and fun event that doesn’t result in a January hangover.
For more detail on dealing with allegations of sexual harassment, or conducting workplace investigations in general, check out Maximum HR’s workshops on these issues (the content or delivery of which can be tailored to specific organisational needs or circumstances). Or give us a call on 01582 463462; we’re here to help.