The Small Firms Association has advised small businesses holding staff Christmas parties to take pre-emptive action to reduce the likelihood of any negative repercussions for employees or the business.
SFA Director, Patricia Callan commented: "Staff parties can show our employees deserved appreciation at the end of a busy year. We all understand the benefits of a social outing on team building too. However, these social events also have the potential to provide a context for inappropriate behaviour that could have serious repercussions."
Ms Callan said an employer can be held liable for anything done by the employee in the course of employment.
"In this regard, a work related event is seen as an extension of the workplace and it is important that employers and employees are aware of their obligations from the outset.
It is recommended that prior to the Christmas party, employees are reminded about existing employment policies e.g. disciplinary, bullying, harassment, social media etc. and are informed that they apply to work related social events. In addition, employees should be encouraged to plan their journeys home from the party in advance to reduce the risk of employees drink driving."
The SFA says it has received many calls to date from members who are dealing with complaints from employees following the Christmas party in particular grievances, harassment and sexual harassment concerns.
"It is advised that employers take action on these complaints without delay and follow the company procedures in the normal way. Previous case law has shown that the Equality Tribunal was extremely critical of complaints not being followed up by a company as the issue arose at the Christmas party.
"It is also important to bear in mind that if a manager witnessed an incident or altercation that they should be excluded from conducting the formal investigation into the matter in line with fair procedures."
Ms Callan further advised that alcohol intake is managed at the party by providing employees with drinks vouchers instead of having a free bar which may encourage excessive drinking. She said the company should also ensure that food is served at regular intervals throughout the evening.
"Taking the above action in advance will greatly assist employers navigate their way through the Christmas party season without any serious repercussions", concluded Callan.