I know we say it every year, but it’s always worth reminding staff – and that includes the board – that standards of behaviour need to be maintained even if you’re out of the office and enjoying a seasonal celebration.
Sexual harassment is, of course, high on the agenda, but it’s worth bearing in mind that alcohol consumption can also lead to other ill-judged behaviour. A prime example is the judgement in Bellman v. Northampton Recruitment Ltd.
A ruling in the Court of Appeal in October this year ruled that an employer (Northampton Recruitment Ltd.) was jointly liable when the complainant (Mr Bellman) was assaulted by the firm’s Managing Director during a post-party drinking session at a hotel near the party venue.
At around midnight, as the firm’s party was ending, the MD paid for taxis to take some colleagues to a hotel for further drinks.
Later, discussions turned into a lecture from the MD ‘laying down the law’ in an ‘explicit assertion of his authority, vehemently and crudely expressed by him’ to junior colleagues. He expressed in an aggressive tone that he owned the company and made all the decisions. When an employee, Mr Bellman, questioned him about this, the MD repeatedly attacked him, leaving him with brain damage.
The original ruling by the High Court determined that the company could not be held vicariously liable for the actions of the MD because the assault took place after the organised work party and the MD was not strictly working during this time. The Court of Appeal overturned this decision, finding that the company was liable because there was a sufficient connection between the MD's ‘field of activities’ and the attack.
I am of the opinion that this case illustrates a poor company culture over and above the assault itself, with a lack of respect demonstrated by the MD concerned. However, the key issue in the case was not just when the attack occurred, but the context – it was still a gathering of employees connected to the evening’s activities, even though the ‘official’ gathering had ended a couple of hours previously.
Before you stage a company event, remind all employees, in writing, – including managers and directors – that they have a duty to behave in a civilised way towards colleagues (and anyone else for that matter) and that any misbehaviour will be dealt with via the firm’s disciplinary policy, without exception, up to and including dismissal. This ruling will not have done the respondent firm any favours in terms of reputational damage – it pays to remember that a case such as this will be in the public domain and will be pounced on with glee by journalists.