When the party's over

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Ever regretted something you have said or done at the office Christmas party? You are not alone, says Helen Jones.

A recent survey by the Harris Research Centre found that 60 per cent of us admit to making fools of ourselves at the annual alcohol-fuelled bash - including drinking too much, flirting, and saying things we later regret.

For one young sales executive, his first office Christmas party at a new firm turned out to be his last. Fortified by huge amounts of free drink he started a fight, poured wine into a colleague's handbag, took all his clothes off on the dance floor, called his boss a wanker and collapsed.

When he finally appeared in the office two days later, he was handed his P45. His boss, who does not wish to be identified, says, "It was a pretty spectacular display of how not to behave. It was obvious he couldn't handle booze, and I was worried about what might happen if he ever went for a drink with a client. He had to go, and in any case I think he would have felt too embarrassed to stay."

Employment lawyers say that bad behaviour of this type is hardly surprising, and that employers should consider the consequences when laying on gallons of free booze. In general, employment appeals tribunals take a dim view of companies that encourage employees to let their hair down and then try to discipline them for it afterwards.

If employees can get over-enthusiastic at the office party, so can employers. One City secretary says, "We all used to try to avoid a particular director who thought that the Christmas party was a licence to grope. Fortunately he has now left the company."

If a company knows that a member of staff or a client has a tendency to "wandering hands", or if some risque entertainment is put on, they may lay themselves open to claims of sexual harassment from employees.

Elaine Aarons, of the law firm Eversheds, adds that: "employers are responsible for the environment in which an event such as a Christmas party takes place, and should be aware that if, for example, a comedian is risque or racist, it may leave them open to a claim."

But Kate Fox, an anthropologist, says that behaving badly at such events is inevitable. "It's to do with forbidden fruit. For most of the year we are a rather repressed, inhibited nation, and it is the one time of year when we can behave differently and it is sanctioned by society. Drinking too much or flirting too much is an approved activity, and you are seen as a bit prissy or a bit of a prude if you don't join in."