An employer’s guide to surviving the Christmas party season

18th December 2019

From inappropriate fancy dress to office party antics, our employment experts discuss how HR professionals can best navigate the festive season.

What potential legal issues should an employer consider when organising a work Christmas party? 

Where to go for a Christmas party, should it be fancy dress, are employees’ partners to be invited? These are often the first questions considered by employers when organising a Christmas party for staff. Much more important than any of these issues is the need for employers to understand that work-related functions such as Christmas parties are effectively work activities. Consequently, employers can be liable for the actions of their employees at work-related events and this is called vicarious liability. Christmas parties and similar events are covered by the same legislation as those relating to the workplace and employers could therefore be liable for incidents of harassment and bullying as well as the individual engaging in that behaviour being personally liable.

As office parties are an extension of work, the employer’s usual policies and procedures still apply. Bullying, harassment, discrimination, grievance and disciplinary procedures could all be relevant. A health and safety risk assessment of the venue may also be needed depending on the location and guests.   

What factors should you consider when combining employees and alcohol?

As well as the issue of vicarious liability mentioned above, an employer has a duty of care towards their employees. Excessive consumption of alcohol should be discouraged not only because of the possible harm to the individual but also because an employer could potentially be responsible for any injuries resulting from an employee being drunk at the party. Employers should also consider the travel arrangements, for example arranging minibuses to take staff home or providing taxis. Alternatively, it might be better to arrange for the party to take place in a city centre where public transport is available.

Many employers choose not to provide free alcohol but if they do, they should make it clear that this is limited to either a couple of hours, say at the start of the party or alternatively limited to just certain types of drinks. It is important to ensure that plenty of non-alcoholic drinks are provided as an alternative for those who are driving or who do not drink for religious or other reasons.

When it comes to etiquette, does what constitutes inappropriate behaviour need to be spelled out to employees?

Traditionally, office parties are in the evening but increasingly many employers hold lunch time events to reduce the risk of employees behaving inappropriately and drinking too much alcohol. Whatever the event, employees need to be aware that inappropriate behaviour such as fighting with, or harassment of, colleagues will not be tolerated. Harassment includes unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity at work and it can be because of someone’s gender, race or religion for example. Offensive behaviour at an office party often constitutes harassment which can then result in disciplinary proceedings against the individual involved and the risk of a grievance from the member of staff affected.

A good starting point for employers is to remind staff before the party that it is a work-related event and the usual standards of behaviour apply and that inappropriate conduct can result in disciplinary proceedings. Have a word with the senior managers and remind them it is important for them to set an example.

What can employers do to avoid problems over the holidays and Christmas parties?

Bullying and harassment, inappropriate sexual comments, upsetting photographs on social media and drunken fights occur all too frequently at Christmas parties. Deciding to have fancy dress brings its own issues if inappropriate costumes are worn. Many employers are so concerned at the possible repercussions that they don’t organise Christmas parties at all.

One very serious and sad case that attracted a lot of media attention was that of Mr Bellman (Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd Court of Appeal 2018). Mr Bellman attended a Christmas party organised and paid for by NRL which included free drinks up to a certain limit. At the end of the party, the Managing Director, Mr Major, suggested that a group of them should go on to a hotel for a few more drinks. The taxis were paid for by NRL, as were most of the drinks at the hotel. At some point, Mr Bellman and Mr Major argued and Mr Bellman was punched with such force that he was knocked out, fell back and sustained a fracture to his skull which led to traumatic brain damage. Mr Bellman brought a claim against NRL that it was vicariously liable for the severe personal injury inflicted by Mr Major who was NRL’s employee and Managing Director. The High Court held that the assault was committed at impromptu drinks which were separate from the Christmas party and the party which NRL had paid for had passed without incident. However, the Court of Appeal disagreed and held that NRL was vicariously liable for Mr Major’s actions.

Employers planning their Christmas or other parties should ensure in particular that senior members of staff are aware of the potential for liability for the actions of employees at work-related events. As mentioned above in this article there are a number of key steps employers can take to prevent problems arising including in particular a reminder of the behaviour that is expected from all employees, whether during or arising from the event.

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