24-hour party people

08-12-2004

Two messages before you get dug into the season. Enjoy yourself, but beware. Emma Lunn tells you why

The season of goodwill can have a strange effect on people. It's that special time of year when uptight secretaries grope their bosses on the fire escape and mature professionals take to the tabletops and gyrate, heedless of the morrow. And there's always someone who photocopies their bottom. Claims of sexual harassment and unfair dismissal resulting from the office Christmas party are on the increase and workers and employers alike need to take appropriate steps to make sure everyone still has a job to go to the morning after.

A survey by recruitment agency Pertemps found that one in 50 women who got drunk at their Christmas party the previous year lost their jobs as a result. Countless others have suffered untold embarrassment as a result of over-indulging at the free bar or trying to impress colleagues with complicated dance moves.

Management consultant Kate Cooper was nervous about attending her office Christmas party when she was new to the company. "I decided the best way to cope with my nerves was to have a few drinks," she recalls. "Unfortunately I got really drunk and was the first to take to the dance floor, where my flailing arms knocked a drink out of my manager's hand and it went all over him. Minutes later I was being sick in the toilets and it was only 8.30pm. I spent most of the next day hiding in embarrassment."

Director of reed.co.uk Dan Ferrandino advises against employees showing their wilder side at the office Christmas bash and recommends that people try to view such get-togethers as good networking opportunities instead. "Have a good time but save the high jinks for your friends," he says. "After all, any work party is an extension of the office and you will have to face all your colleagues again and again afterwards."

A survey by drinks company Diageo found that 7.3 million Britons are likely to experience a "career-crashing" moment at this year's Christmas party By anyone's standards, that adds up to a serious amount of office humiliation. "Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that drinking too much alcohol can lead you to say things that you later regret," says Kate Blakeley, Diageo's head of social responsibility. "And there are few occasions when this can potentially be more damaging than when you are surrounded by bosses and colleagues."

The key to surviving Christmas celebrations seems to be not saying or doing anything that would be out of place in the office. This includes confessions of undying devotion, gossiping about workmates and criticising management styles. An increase in sexual harassment claims means that everyone is well advised to keep their hands to themselves. "If you do go slightly over the top and realise the next day that you have offended someone, make sure you go and apologise to the person concerned," Ferrandino. "Try and ensure that your hangover is under control first though, as there are plenty of examples of people who have put their foot in it the morning after because the alcohol is still in their system."

It is not just employees that can say the wrong thing in a drunken moment. Manchester law firm Glaisyers has advised employers to be careful what they say after a recent tribunal case in which an employee claimed for constructive dismissal because the pay rise he was offered at the end of his company's annual dinner-dance did not materialise. Although the employee lost the case on the grounds that the conversation between the claimant and his manager at the party did not amount to an enforceable promise to increase pay, Glaisyers solicitor Russell Brown says that bosses still need to engage their brains before opening their mouths.

"The office Christmas party is a potential banana skin for company bosses and have in recent years been the source of a large number of sexual discrimination claims," he says. This is yet another danger that bosses need to be aware of and though the employer's case for constructive dismissal was rejected here, employers should not only be on their best behaviour, but on their guard."

However, sexual discrimination claims notwithstanding, it seems the office Christmas party is still a prime time for romance with colleagues. A survey by Mates condom makers found that 64% of Brits have pulled at the office do, with 8% having to leave their jobs as a result of ill-advised festive fumbles. Mates' findings are backed up by re search by soft drink manufacturer Energy69, which found that 86% of workers had been propositioned by a colleague at the Christmas party. The survey also found that although 90% of people got drunk at the party, only 21% were reprimanded for their behaviour.

However, one of the most perilous consequences of overindulgence in alcohol is violence. "In one case I know of," says an employment partner at a national law firm, "a worker arrived at his Christmas party already drunk, took drugs in the toilet, removed his clothes on the dance floor, brought down a chandelier by swinging his belt around his head, and then punched his managing director unconscious. Needless to say, his claim for unfair dismissal was unsuccessful - but many employees may be unaware that they can also face serious disciplinary action and even dismissal if their behaviour tarnishes the company's name or reputation, even if the conduct takes place outside the workplace."

So, this Christmas it pays to keep your hands under control, drinks to a minimum and opinions to yourself. Happy partying.

The Guardian

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