Secret Santa and office banter could cost firms billions

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women and men in officeDave Thompson/PA Wire

As we get through our first day back in the office, most people will be struggling with the harsh return to work. However, for some, the first day is going to be even more fraught - because of something they got up to at the office party, or a poorly-planned Secret Santa gift.

And it's not just a nightmare for those who made these mistakes: one expert says 'a bit of fun' could cost businesses £292 billion.


Employment partner, Karen Seward, at law firm Allen & Overy says: "Once the lights go on and the party finishes, employers can be left with disciplinary headaches. There's a fine line between friendly, acceptable banter and unlawful harassment or discrimination."

A study by the firm found that often employees have no idea where to draw the line. They asked over 1,000 UK workers if they could easily draw the line between banter and unlawful bullying. Reassuringly, 80% said they could draw the line; but when asked to identify unlawful comments, there was a worrying lack of understanding.

Secret Santa

Secret Santa is a discrimination claim waiting to happen. Some 46% thought it wasn't unlawful to give a calendar of a male or female semi-naked model. Although some may appreciate the human form, others may feel it creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive workplace environment, which can lead to a harassment claim.

It said the potential cost to UK businesses from ill-considered secret Santa gifts was around £135 billion.

Language

The firm then asked about bad language. Surprisingly 59% of respondents felt it wasn't unlawful to swear. To some extent they are correct, but swearing based on a legally protected characteristic such as gender, sexuality, or race can lead to a discrimination claim. Getting this wrong could cost British businesses anywhere between £114 billion and £292 billion

Similarly 59% felt blaspheming wasn't unlawful; but for a religious colleague this may be seen as hostile and offensive and might form the basis of a religious discrimination claim. Again this could cost British businesses up to £292 billion.

And inappropriate language doesn't stop there. Some 38% felt it wasn't unlawful to refer to a colleague as 'coloured'. A one-off comment may go under the radar but if a person makes it known that this is considered to be an offensive comment and the perpetrator persists, it could lead to a race discrimination claim. This has the potential to cost businesses £114 billion.

Love

Finally, with Valentines Day looming, Allen & Overy asked about romance. Some 78% of workers felt that sending a work colleague an anonymous card and chocolates wasn't unlawful. What the workforce might not appreciate is that a benign gesture such as this could turn into a harassment claim, particularly if the person receiving the gift is in a relationship and has made it clear that they are not interested. These kinds of claims could cost UK firms £229 billion

And it's not just your company that could suffer: you could end up in financial trouble too. Seward warns: "Time and time again, workers throw advice in this area into the 'political correctness' box, not appreciating the litigation risks or the impact on individuals. But they should do so at their peril, as an employee can be made personally liable for a discrimination claim under which compensation is unlimited".