The photographs of our office Christmas party last Friday demonstrate that everyone had lots of fun throughout the evening. At the moment, I am unaware of any incidents which would cause our HR department any concern. However, given the frantic nature of our workload in the period leading up to Christmas, it might not be until the New Year that employees advise their employer of any events which caused them concern during the course of the office Christmas party.
If, as an employer, you are unlucky enough to be handed a formal grievance by an employee in the New Year which relates to events which occurred “last Christmas”, it is very important that you do not ignore it.
ACAS Code of Practice
Whilst it might be tempting for an employer to advise an employee that an event which occurred at the office party last month is “water under the bridge”, this could be extremely costly for the employer in the future. The ACAS Code of Practice applies to all employers and includes a grievance procedure which is intended to assist employees and employers in determining work place grievances. Whilst the Code is not legally binding, a tribunal may, if it considers it just and equitable, increase any award of compensation to an employee by up to 25% if it believes that an employer has unreasonably failed to comply with the Code. For this reason alone, grievances should not be ignored or brushed under the carpet by employers.
All reasonable steps defence
Remember too that, if you have an employee complaining about alleged harassment from a colleague at the office Christmas party, you, as the employer, are likely going to be vicariously liable for any such complaint. As such, it is very important that, if you are given a grievance relating to these events, you create a paper trail recording the way in which you dealt with the complaint. Additionally, if there is substance in the grievance, it is very important that you take action against any employees who have breached your internal policies. This paper trail and your actions will go some way to potentially relying upon the “all reasonable steps” defence which is outlined in the Equality Act 2010 if you are later presented with a complaint of harassment.
Maintaining an engaged workforce
From a non-legal perspective, it is also very important for any work place issues to be addressed for the good of your workforce. By addressing any outstanding issues, an employer should keep the workforce engaged and ensure that staff morale remains high. Happier employees are more successful employees. Whilst it may be possible to informally resolve a grievance by having a frank discussion with an employee, in certain circumstances the issue may require a more formal procedure. Employers should not be scared to have these difficult and sometimes necessary conversations with employees.
Regrets? I’ve had a few …
(The only one this year being my dance moves at the office Christmas party…!)Simon Allison Partner – Employment Law