Career Clinic: Can I get political in my Christmas party speech?

Hold on a minute, before you start pouring the eggnog, just remember that the world of politics can be incredibly divisive – especially if you’ve all had a drink or two. You may be convinced that everyone in the office supports your political views, but you could work alongside “Remain” or “Hillary” supporters who have not openly promoted it.

Giving a speech at a work-sponsored event is very different from having a political debate with a colleague over a drink outside the office. If you didn’t already know, take this early Christmas gift: UK employment law still applies at work parties – even though they are social affairs.

As such, if you were to say something at a work party that severely offended a colleague, he or she would be able to submit a formal complaint or a grievance against you. Your employer would be under an obligation to investigate it, analyse what had been said at the party and the effect it had on your co-workers.

This sort of investigation would involve your employer interviewing you and others who had attended the party. Your line manager and direct reports might also be interviewed, with the aim of finding out whether you make regularly make offensive comments in the workplace. Know this, too: You wouldn’t be legally entitled to take a lawyer or colleague with you to your interview for support.

If your employer were to decide that the situation was sufficiently serious and your speech had caused enough distress, then formal disciplinary action could be started against you. Depending on the nature of your employer’s disciplinary policy, this could lead to you receiving a written warning, having your bonus docked, prevent you from being promoted, or – in an extreme case – lead to you being fired.

If your comments were particularly offensive to a colleague, he or she could also act independently and bring a legal claim against you or your employer through an employment tribunal for harassment, victimisation or even discrimination. If you or your employer lost this case, you might be liable to pay compensation.

This is a rather extreme set of scenarios, in what has been quite an extreme year, so before penning your speech, consider what has been said previously. If there is a historic tradition of political speeches being made at your office Christmas party and if past speech makers have yet to face any repercussions, it would be harder for your employer to take formal action against you. You would be able to argue that your employer had implicitly sanctioned the tradition of political speech making in previous years by allowing the tradition to continue and that this was unfair treatment.

However, even if that is the case, there is certainly an element of risk-taking involved when making a politically-motivated speech in the workplace and it is worth keeping in mind the possible repercussions before putting pen to paper.

Caroline Stroud is a partner and David Mendel is a senior associate in the employment, pensions and benefits team at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

This material is for general information only and is not intended to provide legal advice or counsel.

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