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Top legal tips for your office Christmas party

Synonymous with this time of year is the staff Christmas party. Whilst the event is often a good time for employees to begin the festive period, it can also bring with it unwanted consequences and repercussions for employers.

It is well-established that employers have a ‘duty of care’ towards their staff which extends to organised social events taking place outside of work. Consequently, employers risk being held vicariously liable for incidents that occur between staff at the Christmas party – such as assault or sexual harassment. A recent case which deals with this issue is that of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd. A Christmas party for around 24 staff took place at a golf club. After the party ended, some employees including a director, decided to go for further drinks at a hotel. An argument arose between the director and some staff over a work issue resulting in the director punching one employee leaving him with brain damage. The High Court decided that in this case the company was not vicariously liable for the assault because a line could be drawn between the work party and the ‘impromptu drinks’. As the drinks had not been part of the planned works party the High Court decided that the assault did not occur in the course of employment. However, if the assault had occurred during the actual party then the employer would have been liable in damages to the employee.

Employers also need to consider that some employees may not be able to drink alcohol or eat certain foods due to their religion or due to a disability. Other employees may need an accessible venue due to having a disability. Refusing to consider their needs and failing to offer suitable alternatives may result in a claim of discrimination.

So, what can be done to help reduce the risk of an employer being sued due to events occurring at a works Christmas party?

  1. Prior to the event taking place, employers should gently remind staff of what is considered acceptable behaviour and make it clear what the consequences of bad behaviour would be.
  2. Ensure that there are policies in place to prevent and/or deal with discrimination, bullying and harassment. These would include an Equal Opportunities Policy, an Harassment  Policy and a Disciplinary Procedure. Employers will be in a much stronger positon to deal with any issues that arise at a Christmas party if the aforementioned policies are already implemented.
  3. Consider implementing an Alcohol & Substance Abuse Policy to actively discourage excessive drinking. Alcohol-fuelled behaviour is the underlying cause of the majority of unwelcome behaviour at the Christmas party and this type of policy would help to minimise the risks of such behaviour.
  4. Provide suitable food and non-alcoholic beverages to help mitigate against the risk of an employee getting too drunk at an event.
  5. Engage with staff before the event to ensure that all dietary requirements are catered for so that everybody can enjoy themselves.
  6. Drink driving should also be positively discouraged and employers may wish to consider alternative travel arrangements for staff to get home at the end of the evening, such as providing phone numbers for reputable local taxi firms or hiring minibuses.
  7. Ensure that the venue for the Christmas party is easily accessible for all staff, including any individuals that may have a disability.
  8. Care should be taken to invite any workers who are currently not present in the workplace, for example those on maternity leave or sick leave to help prevent claims of discrimination.

Other issues that may arise are employees failing to attend work the day after the Christmas party or employees posting unsuitable photos or messages on social media.

Usual sickness absence rules should apply if an employee is not in work on the day after the Christmas party and any sickness absence policy should be followed. It may be appropriate to start the disciplinary procedure for employees who are absent without authorisation or fail to follow the employer’s absence reporting procedure. One way of avoiding absenteeism and low productivity on the day after the event would be to ensure that it is held over the weekend.

Employers should also take steps to ensure that anything posted about the Christmas party on social media does not damage the reputation of the business. The best way to combat this would be to have an effective Social Media Policy which sets out that social media must not be used in such a way as to damage the employer’s reputation or simply to ban employees from posting anything that links the company to their social media. Staff would be made aware of the consequences of failing to follow the policy i.e. that disciplinary action may result.

Despite the potential pitfalls, the Christmas party can be a great way to increase morale and make staff feel valued. By carefully preparing for the event, considering the needs of all staff and following the above advice, your Christmas party is likely to be a great success.