How to manage virtual office parties

With summer approaching and lockdown rules still in place, Charles Urquhart and Corinna Harris outline the best way to minimise the risks of inappropriate behaviour – even online

With the UK still under Covid restrictions, you might be forgiven for thinking that HR professionals will be breathing a sigh of relief that this year they won't have to contend with the usual party-related conduct issues. But as many employers turn to online celebrations instead of the traditional office summer party, businesses should be aware that virtual celebrations pose just as many risks as an in-person office get-together, whether it be from online bullying, harassment or privacy issues.

With so many people working remotely during the pandemic, the boundaries between work and private life have become blurred. With this comes the risk that the usual office etiquette is forgotten. People may let their guard down in more casual environments, and so home working and virtual parties may increase the potential for bullying and harassment. There are no restrictions on how much alcohol employees may consume during, or even before, a virtual gathering. There is also the risk that perpetrators may feel more confident hiding behind their computer because virtual communications provide a degree of anonymity that can lead people to act in ways that they wouldn't in person.

It has been widely reported that during the pandemic there has been a significant increase in online harassment by work colleagues. 

What does the law say? 

The Equality Act, which outlaws discrimination and harassment in England and Wales, does not distinguish between acts done in the office at 9am on a Monday morning and events that take place out of hours at a summer party, whether that is in a pub or online. This is because it also applies where individuals are acting in the course of their employment outside their workplace. 

Something can amount to harassment even if the perpetrator didn’t mean to offend or intimidate if it relates to sex, race, disability, age, sexual orientation, religious belief, gender reassignment, pregnancy, marriage or civil partnership. The classic example is one person makes a joke, which they intend to be humorous rather than offensive; three people laugh, but a fourth is humiliated on the grounds of, say, national origin. That will constitute a breach of the act. This can happen just as easily virtually as it can in person.

Inappropriate behaviour at an office party could lead to an individual being on the receiving end of a formal grievance and even being dismissed for gross misconduct. They could also, along with their employer, be a defendant in a tribunal claim and ordered to pay compensation. 

Tips for employers

Employers will have a defence if they can show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent employees from committing discriminatory acts. Employers should therefore consider taking these steps before a virtual party:

  • warn against inappropriate behaviour;
  • remind employees about the alcohol and drugs policy;
  • remind staff about the social media policy, and the consequences of posting pictures or other inappropriate material online that could infringe an individual's rights, or bring the business into disrepute;
  • circulate clear written guidelines on equal opportunities and online harassment, and the disciplinary sanctions that could result from breaches of the rules;
  • ensure any complaints about the party are dealt with seriously and consistently, and in accordance with company procedures; and
  • ensure the online party is secure from uninvited guests.

Our anti-discrimination laws were not introduced to stop people having a good time, but to allow everyone to feel at ease at work and when socialising with colleagues, whether that is in person or online. Especially after such a difficult year, this summer season should be a time of celebration for everyone.

Charles Urquhart is a partner and Corinna Harris a professional support lawyer at Clyde & Co