A new guest at Christmas parties?

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14 December 2010

With the Christmas party season upon us, most employers will be aware of the risks posed by alcohol, 80's music and dodgy dance moves, but this year we may see a new guest at Christmas parties in the shape of the Equality Act 2010.

Whilst the vast majority of parties will no doubt be enjoyed by all and no one wants to put a dampener on festivities, there are a number of new issues that employers should bear in mind when faced with a partying workforce.

Perceived discrimination - employees do not need to have a protected characteristic (e.g. race) to be protected from discrimination. It is enough if someone thinks that they do. For example, consider a manager who takes the mickey out of a member of his team because he thinks he has a camp manner and is wearing a flamboyant pink shirt at the party. The team member may have a claim for discrimination against his employer and against his manager, regardless of whether he is gay or not.  

Associated discrimination - likewise, an individual can be discriminated against where they don't have a protected characteristic, but where they associate with someone who does.  By way of illustration, if a manager is thinking of promoting someone, but decides not to because that person mentions at the office party that she has a disabled child and the manager has concerns about her being able to do the new role, this could amount to disability discrimination.

High-tech harassment - the Equality Act makes no significant changes to the definition of harassment on the grounds of a protected characteristic.  However, Twitter, Facebook and text now give individuals the opportunity to continue their conversations immediately after the party and into the early hours.  Conversations that began at the office party can stray into dangerous territory as one individual goes home and the other continues to party.

Third party harassment  - under the Equality Act, an employer will be liable for the action of third parties who harass their employees if harassment has taken place on two separate occasions, the employee has notified the employer of those two occasions and the employer has not taken reasonable steps to prevent further harassment.

What should employers be doing?

While the Equality Act introduces some new risks to take into account at office parties, the annual advice for harmonious office parties remains unchanged and employers should consider:

  • reminding employees as to the standards expected
  • ensuring managers address any incidents that take place at the party, including any allegations about the behaviour of third parties such as serving staff or the company's customers or clients
  • it is not always treatment at the office party which amounts to discrimination, information discussed in such social situations may often be used by managers in making decisions in the future and managers should be reminded to be careful as to how they use such information

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