Spare a thought for HR (and Dwaine, the team leader) at this year’s office Christmas party

Once again, the office Christmas party season is in full swing, and HR executives across the country are breathing heavily into paper bags, bracing themselves for the inevitable rush of harassment claims in the first week of January.

Traditionally, complaints have centred around rowdy incidents, usually involving men, dropped trousers, photocopied buttocks, and an assortment of language that can generally be assembled under the collective term ‘just a bit of banter’.

This can range from the mild and comparatively innocuous ‘I bet Tracey likes a bit of stuffing’ over lunch, to Declan from warehouse supplies telling the rest of the diehards in the 3am taxi rank, that he reckons Hitler had a point about the Jews.

Then there’s the crowd for whom the first sip of alcohol and 12 months of pent-up frustration and resentment against Dwaine, the team leader, convinces them that he should, under no circumstances, end the evening with all of his teeth intact.

Silent brooding over the prawn cocktail seamlessly graduates to teeth-grinding and heavy breathing, as the Irish coffees are being served, to Dwaine feeling the cold steel of a coat stand across the back of his neck as he makes his way to the toilet.

Then, there are the spontaneous declarations of love, delivered in unexpected and often tangential ways, including the dropping of trousers and the impromptu gifting of photocopied buttocks.      

Those overseeing health, safety, and employment regulations might already be reviewing the hearing schedules at the local employment tribunal office for early January.

And while, in the past, they could reasonably prepare for the usual clichéd behaviours, such as asking for a kiss under the mistletoe from a colleague, there is now a wider range of potential misdemeanours that can give rise to claims of sex discrimination or sexual harassment under the Equality Act 2010.

Repeatedly using the wrong pronoun to address someone, invading someone’s personal space, and crossing boundaries during conversation can all be problematic.

Again, where alcohol is involved, there is a long spectrum of potential offences. It may be that from Damon in operations believes the karaoke mike in the Prawn and Shovel at midnight is the appropriate time and forum to quiz Bert, the 64 year-old forklift truck driver, on why, shortly before the September weekend break, he suddenly announced that from Tuesday he would be identifying as Clarissa.

Indecent jokes, banter, or mild flirtation have the potential to cause offense or discomfort, and employers should ensure that both staff and their guests are aware of appropriate boundaries. Sharing suggestive selfies, circulating risqué photos on social media, and giving sexually suggestive Secret Santa gifts may lead to legal disputes.

It’s not only the conduct of staff during the party that employers should be concerned about.

Workers have filed cases against employers for events held outside of office hours, in nightclubs after the official party has concluded, and even in taxis on the way home.

For any employer planning a Christmas celebration for their hardworking staff, nothing should be taken for granted.

Actions that may seem harmless or unintentional can still result in successful legal claims. Here are some examples of cases to consider before embarking on the festive preparations with streamers and cases of Prosecco.

So, in the spirit of Christmas, and being mind of your colleagues in HR, here are five tips on how to get through the office Christmas party without a claim against you.

  • We all love a good office shindig, don’t turn it into a liquid courage fest. Keep an eye on that free bar – no one wants to be the legend (or laughingstock) in the office group chat for months!
  • Now, mistletoe – it’s not a green light for an office romance novel. Keep it cool and don’t cross into awkward territory, especially if you’re the boss. No inappropriate jokes, even if Tami from accounts gets a bit too cozy – set those boundaries.
  • Dress to impress, but don’t go crazy with the rude and inappropriate outfits. Remember, it’s still a professional setting – even if the boss is rocking a Santa hat.
  • Save the complaints for your therapist – seriously! This party is for celebrating, not griping about your boss, or whining about that one colleague who never refills the coffee pot. Gossip spreads faster than Santa on Christmas Eve, so zip it!
  • Share the love at the buffet. Don’t be a pig in a blanket, hogging all the goodies. And if the company’s footing the bill, don’t order the lobster and champagne like it’s your last meal.

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