Intolerance: Firms "Scared" of Christmas Parties

There are many reasons to hate your boss, and you may usually suffer all of them by 09:15 on a Monday. But yesterday, 2005-10-31, a new survey found one more: yours may well have cancelled Christmas. Or, at least, your Christmas party. According to a report by 'The Peninsula' employment law firm -- which surveyed 3_500 companies -- four out of five employers will not lay- on an 'office do' this year -- to avoid the costly consequences of bad behaviour. Whether it is for fear of sexual harassment cases, absence due to hangovers or all-out brawling on the night, bosses have deemed the festivities more hassle than they're worth. The majority of firms questioned said that the parties always generate some form of ill-feeling, and can often lead to official complaints. Two thirds admitted to having dismissed a member of staff on account of their behaviour at a party. But it was not always thus. In more opulent times, firms jumped at the chance to reward their employees, with no expense spared. As recently as 2000, the financial news agency 'Bloomberg' gave its 1_500 London-based employees a Christmas present to remember. Taking extravagance to an extreme, the event was said to cost 1_million_GBP and was based on the theme of 'The Seven Deadly Sins'. Mr.Michael Bloomberg transformed a disused city block into four floors of massage stations, manicure booths, a sushi bar, a cabaret, and a casino. One of the ten bars was lined with a sweet-filled trough to signify gluttony, and for lust there was an eight-metre wide bed covered with purple satin. So, how have we gone from boss-funded boudoirs to no hint of festive cheer? One of the main reasons cited is that employers fear being sued for sexual harassment. Under new legislation the definition of harassment has been widened so that any offence which takes place in the course of employment -- even if that is drinks in the pub after hours or at a company-funded work bash -- is the responsibility of the employer. Ms.Elizabeth Weston was a solicitor with investment firm 'Merrill Lynch', and she provides only one example of the growing precedent for legal action. At the 2003 Christmas party, she was 'disgusted' by a male colleague who, after spilling wine down her top, commented on her 'great waps'. He then allegedly began a drunken argument with another colleague about whether the correct slang for a woman's breasts was 'waps' or 'baps', before saying her husband was a lucky man and joking about their sex life. An internal disciplinary hearing stripped the man of his 26_000_GBP bonus -- though he appealed and won half of it back -- and so disappointed was Ms.Weston with her treatment that she sued the firm. Days before the employment tribunal, she settled for a reported 1_million_GBP, but the case was sufficient to create fears in other firms of a similar backlash. Ms.Mandy Laurie is a partner at 'Dundas & Wilson' who specialises in employment law. She says that employers are increasingly aware that the buck stops with them:
'It's very hard for employers to strike a balance, because if they go overboard in their protection, people will see them as being excessively politically correct. 'But we have seen more and more cases come about from sexual harassment, or other issues stemming from drinking copious amounts of alcohol. 'Employers are having to become more paternalistic and they have a duty to police their workplace even if there has yet to be a problem. 'If they take reasonable and practicable steps beforehand to discourage inappropriate behaviour, they will protect themselves somewhat from legal action later. 'That's why we would advise employers to issue a statement of guidance before the Christmas season, stating exactly what standard of conduct is required.'
Those passes in the broom cupboard are not the only problem. Under 'The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003', non-Christian employees can argue that Christmas parties discriminate against them if their religious festivals are not celebrated. Although the parties are unlikely to be outlawed, in future it may be necessary to call them 'end of year' parties to ensure that people of all faiths feel welcome. What's more, the 'boozy' functions can be seen by some employees as the chance to air grievances which they would otherwise keep quiet. 'Dutch courage' can fuel requests for a pay rise, or overt bitching about the boss, both of which can lead to a headache for the management. Given that 'Norwich Union's' calculations last year put the cost in working hours of the national post-party hangover at 65_million_GBP, there is a business case to be made for being a 'Scrooge'. However, is cancelling Christmas not also a liability? If employees -- the majority of whom would cause no harm other than to their own liver -- feel neglected by their management, will that not also cultivate bad feeling? Ms.Gill King is a former personnel director who now owns her own management consultancy.
'Some people dread these parties anyway,' she says,
'So they might be relieved they don't have to socialise with their colleagues.
'But if there is a bad relationship between a company and its staff, this will do nothing to improve it. 'The decision would probably be viewed as one more cost-cutting exercise or as a chance for the bosses to get out of rewarding their staff, so it needs to be communicated properly. 'It does sound pathetic, but instructing staff on how they are to behave while in employment would be wise.
'It is sad, and quite party-pooping, but there is such a legal minefield out there, it may not be worth the risk.'
  • 'Virgin Holidays' Christmas came early for the 'Virgin Holidays' team last year. They celebrated their festivities in 2004-08 when Sir.Richard Branson, invited them all to his house near Oxford for a staff party. Over two weekends, employees drawn from the entire 'Virgin Group' boogied to an all-day band, rode quad bikes, paddled canoes, took a hot-air balloon ride and gorged themselves at a giant barbecue.
  • 'BSkyB' In 2001, Mr.Rupert Murdoch, chairman of 'BSkyB', hired an events team to transform Bloomsbury's Victoria Insurance Building into a Stanley Kubrick-style fantasy hotel. Staff enjoyed 20_000 cocktails (served by breakdancing chambermaids), sushi, bangers and mash, fish and chips and noodles at a bash costing hundreds of thousands of pounds.
  • 'HIH' -- Australian Insurance Company which went into liquidation in 2001. The last of the 'bigger than Ben Hur' parties before the company was engulfed in red ink was held at Christmas 1999 in the 'SuperDome' in a plush Sydney suburb. The party was attended by around 800 employees, families and guests, who were treated to a wealth of entertainment including actors dressed as robots in a 'spaceship set'. Employees also received free limousine and mini-bus travel home. In previous years, when the company was not so large, the 60 employees would all be flown off to Greece or Rio, but, as it expanded, the parties were held at Sydney's upmarket venues. This finale is estimated to have cost in the region of 1_million_AUD.
  • 'Bloomsberg' In 2000-12 stockmarket information service 'Bloomberg' gave its 1_500 London-based employees a party par excellence. Described by the tabloids as one of the most extravagant office parties ever, the event was said to have cost 1_million_GBP and was based on the theme of 'The Seven Deadly Sins'. It took ten days to prepare the venue, where staff were treated to a variety of entertainments. The focal point of the party was the 'lust room', with a 8-metre- bed covered with purple satin, while one of the ten bars, based on the theme of gluttony, was lined with a trough filled with sweets.
  • 'American Financial Group' Ten thousand employees are treated to a feast of entertainment at an 'AFG' Christmas 'do'. Owner Mr.Carl Lindner is renowned for hiring the likes of Mr.Bill Cosby, Mr.Frank Sinatra, Ms.Natalie Cole and Mr.Lionel Richie.
'Is this the death of the office Christmas party? ', Anna Smyth, The Scotsman, 2005-11-01


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