THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR OR A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS: HOW CAN EMPLOYERS NAVIGATE THE PITFALLS OF PARTY SEASON?

It’s that time again. After two years of social distancing and isolation, the office Christmas party may well be the first time some people have been able to socialise in person with their colleagues since Christmas 2019. 

As the first party invitations start to ping into calendars, I want to highlight some of the Christmas party pitfalls facing employers, and how to navigate them without leaving anyone feeling Scrooged.

Four main concerns

During the festive season, our team managing the Legal Helpline tend to receive more calls from employers seeking clarity on their rights and responsibilities to employees in regard to their office party.

Four of the main areas we regularly advise on are:

  • Disciplinary issues
  • Liability issues
  • Health and safety
  • Sickness and holiday

Bosses typically ask how much drink they are allowed to provide for staff, what they should do if an incident of sexual harassment or abuse is reported during a party, and whether they can be held liable for any injury or damage to other people or property during the course of a party.

The price of a festive punch

Our key advice is that the Christmas party should be considered an extension of the workplace, regardless of where it is held. As such, all policies and procedures on employee conduct will still apply.  Technically, the legal question for whether or not an employer can take action against an employee for conduct outside of work is whether the conduct in question could have a substantial adverse impact on the workplace.  At a Christmas party the answer to this will almost always be ‘yes’, and, as such, normal rules should apply, and employers should remind their staff of the expectations before setting out.

We’re often asked whether employers can be held liable for the actions of their staff during the Christmas party, the answer is yes.

UK case law makes clear that it is possible for employers to be held vicariously liable for incidents occurring at the Christmas party, as in the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment [2018].   In  this case, an employee was seriously injured by his MD during an altercation that broke out while drinking after a Christmas party.  Though they were no longer ‘at the official party’, the argument was about business matters and the MD was found to be asserting his authority within the auspices of his role and as such, the company was found liable for damages.

Though no-one wants to police staff too closely during an end of year celebration, for this reason, it is pertinent that employers do as much as they can in advance to mitigate the possibility of an unwelcome incident occurring. Some steps include:

  • Making sure all staff (particularly new recruits) have a chance to review the company policy on workplace behaviours and are clear that these rules still apply during the party
  • Reminding staff that they represent the company and must act as such, this includes online behaviour as well as offline
  • Consider offering drinks tokens rather than an open bar, though unlikely to completely negate any liability for drunken incidents, taking a measured approach could prove a mitigating factor if a claim does arise
  • Conduct a risk assessment in advance

Carefully check the policy in place at the chosen venue to understand the limit of liability in relation to damage

So, before you rock around that Christmas tree this year, take a moment to remind staff of your expectations of them, and make sure they are up to speed on your policies and procedures, they are after all, still representing your business and should behave accordingly.

Michael Jenkins, Head of Legal Advice, Arc Legal Assistance

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