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Office banter warning as Christmas parties approach

A regional employment law expert is warning of the fine line between ‘office banter’ and harassment as businesses plan their festive celebrations.

Kate Shawcross, associate solicitor in the Employment & HR team at Napthens, warned that employers need to be aware of the repercussions of Christmas party banter.

For many, the time of year – especially at the Christmas party – is viewed as a time to loosen up and let off some steam, in readiness for a busy start to the year ahead.

Kate explained: “The fine line between office banter and harassment can from time to time be difficult to distinguish, especially in social settings. Unfortunately, we have seen situations where office parties have led to claims of sexual harassment being brought against colleagues.”

Harassment is a form of discrimination and is defined in the Equality Act 2010 as: ‘Unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.’

According to some top tips from Kate, in order to protect against possible issues caused by what may be office banter, employers should:

  • Have a clear policy – remind all staff members of any policy relating to bullying and harassment, clearly setting out what is not considered acceptable.
  • Follow procedure – employers must also ensure that there is a procedure in place to promptly investigate informal and formal complaints as well as ensuring that appropriate disciplinary action is taken.
  • Christmas parties should be considered an extension of the working environment, and employers should make it clear that any policy that will apply through normal working hours will also apply at any social setting arranged by the employer.
  • Policies and procedures will also apply at these social events. This reminder to the employees could potentially limit the number of issues that do surface.

It is also important for employers to act on any formal grievance that is raised after any social event, whether this is formally or informally.

Kate Shawcross, Employment Associate Lawyer