15 December 2015 - Post by:Sheila Fahy
As Tim Peake embarks upon his secondment into space for six months, and other workers celebrate the festivities with their co-workers at Christmas parties, it is a timely reminder that almost anywhere can be a workplace in the legal sense.
Christmas parties usually take place away from the workplace in an atmosphere that is jovial and relaxed with free-flowing alcohol. Employees could be forgiven for thinking that the event is something separate from work, and that different (or no) rules apply. What they may not appreciate is that the occasion is closely connected with the workplace, which means that company policies such as dignity at work and bullying and harassment still operate. So too will the obligations of an employer towards its employees, making the risk of vicarious liability for incidents of harassment or misconduct more than theoretical.
Below are a few simple steps to mitigate these risks:
- Ensure that entertainers have been briefed in advance to refrain from using inappropriate material which may cause offence
- Be mindful that not everyone celebrates Christmas or drinks alcohol, so arrangements should be inclusive
- Consider limiting the amount of alcohol available free of charge or a cut-off time, and ensure that non-alcoholic options are available
- Remind employees:
- that the event is an extension of the workplace and, as such, the same rules apply, particularly with regard to respect for work colleagues
- to drink responsibly
- that photos of (or comments about) co-workers should not be put on social media without their consent.
Sounds like a ‘bah humbug’ list doesn’t it? I am not suggesting for one moment that employees are given chapter and verse on workplace rules. However, a gentle reminder may pay dividends and reduce the fallout. A slightly firmer nudge should be given to managers so that they set the right tone and lead by example.
As for Tim Peake and his two colleagues in the International Space Station, the risks of inappropriate behaviour or star wars are pretty low with the world watching. Tim’s employers, the European Space Agency, should remember that even though Tim is in space, his employment rights are likely to continue. For example, he will accrue holiday during his six months away, even if he is incapacitated for any length of time. Quite how rest breaks will be worked out is another matter. And the use of extra-terrestrial jurisdictional clauses to oust these rights will not work, as working time is one of the mandatory rules, making it impossible to bypass!