Brainfood: Workplace Rights - The Party Line

Office parties are a minefield for employers. Booze flows, inhibitions are shed, and before you know it, people are photocopying their bottoms and you're landed with a sexual harassment claim from Norman in accounts.

A makeover of the Sex Discrimination Act incorporates specific offences of harassment for the first time. Unwanted conduct of a sexual nature that violates a person's dignity, or creates an 'intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment' for them, is now expressly outlawed. But don't panic. Employers will escape liability for misbehaviour by their staff if they have taken reasonable steps to prevent it. That means having a cogent, well-drafted anti-harassment policy in place, and taking steps to ensure it is followed in practice. There should be clear channels for harassment complaints to be made and investigated, with disciplinary action against offenders where appropriate. But the latest reforms are no big deal, as they largely reflect how the law was previously interpreted and applied. But they provide an opportunity for companies to review and update policy. Some careful fine-tuning could significantly reduce exposure to damaging claims - just in time for the party season. Bottoms up to that.

Michael Burd and James Davies, Lewis Silkin solicitors, e-mail: employment@lewissilkin.com.

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