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The Work Christmas Party

As the festive seasons draws near, it is time to think about the work Christmas party. This often a highlight in the annual working calendar allowing you to treat your staff for their hard work all year. We have put together some guidance to help you be prepared and minimise the risks to your business that can arise when people start to let their hair down.

Why Have a Work Christmas Party?

There are plenty of reasons why having a works Christmas party (or event) is a good morale boost and why you should definitely invest in this type of reward for your staff. First and foremost, a Christmas Party can be seen as a reward for employees as a ‘thank you’ and in recognition of their hard work during the past year. This in turn has the benefit of engaging employees and these events have been known to increase staff retention. Since the make up of offices and working practices have changed post Covid, you may find that having an annual event such as the Works Christmas party is actually a good way to build rapport and encourage team building as you may even have employees who have not physically met their colleagues before! This is therefore a great way to bring everyone together socially.

Employers beware …

It is a common misconception that if an event takes places outside of work and away from work premises that it is nothing to do with work, however if the company organises an event involving employees this will fall within the definition of “in the course of employment” and should be seen as an extension of the workplace. What this means for employers is that you are potentially liable for any misconduct of your employees.

Bah Humbug 

It may seem obvious, but it is worth remembering that not everybody celebrates Christmas, therefore it is important to be inclusive.

For staff who observe different religious holidays, e.g. Yule/Winter Solstice; Hanukkah and Kwanzaa all fall around the same time in December, you should be accommodating and not insist upon compulsory attendance at a Christmas party. Where your have staff with different religious beliefs you should ensure that any requests for time off are treated in the same way and honoured, to the extent possible. If you do not already have a policy on religious holidays you may wish to consider introducing one.

It would be wise not to insist upon compulsory attendance as this is likely to put pressure on parents or those with care responsibilities (particularly if the event is being held outside of normal work hours). Having the element of choice will also take the pressure off your neurodivergent staff (not limited to those with social anxiety) who may be filled with dread at the prospect of having to attend a busy event space that they have never visited before.

If you choose to have a traditional Christmas meal, you should make sure that everyone’s dietary needs and requirements are catered for. Veganism has been held by employment tribunals to amount to philosophical belief protected by law so it is important to ensure that this can be catered for.

Alcohol

Most employers will normally pay for and provide alcohol at a works party. It is recommended that if you wish to do so that you provide a limited amount of alcohol only and ensure that there are soft drink alternatives for those who do not drink. You should remind staff that if they intend to consume alcohol this should be done responsibly, and suitable arrangements should be made for their transport home. You may also wish to remind staff that in addition to the excessive consumption of alcohol being prohibited, the use of illegal drugs and/or substances is also prohibited and any failure to adhere to this may be considered as gross misconduct and lead to disciplinary action including dismissal.

You may want to consider an alternative Christmas party (avoiding the provision of alcohol altogether).

It would be worth reminding employees that they should not ask intrusive questions of colleagues who are not drinking or to encourage anyone who is not drinking to partake, as this may amount to discrimination – particularly if someone does not drink for religious reasons or if they are avoiding alcohol because they are pregnant or have an underlying health condition.

To avoid absenteeism the day after the works event, employers who operate Monday – Friday should aim to hold any event on a Friday. For companies who do not follow the traditional working week, you should ensure that employees understand what is expected of them regarding absence from work following the event.

Discrimination/ Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is the biggest risk and most likely claim to arise out of a work Christmas party. Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a worker or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment for them. It does not matter if the perpetrator did not intend to harass another.

In good time prior to the event, employers should remind all staff of their obligations not to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of any protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010 or to subject anyone to harass and that anyone found guilty of this may be subject to disciplinary action and even dismissal.

Everyone has the right to dignity at work and this extends to work related events. It is important to ensure that employees are aware that the party is an extension of the workplace, and that the same standard of behaviour is expected. Employers may want to be clear about what constitutes inappropriate behaviour e.g. sexual innuendos; unwanted advances; comments about one’s appearance – clothing or body; any inappropriate touching.

Drunken promises

Managers should avoid having conversations with employees about pay increases, bonuses, promotion, or career prospects as well as anything that may be contentious including performance or capability. Promises made to employees have been the subject of employment tribunal claims as verbal promises may be contractually binding.

Employers and managers should be reminded to avoid talking to staff about work issues. There have been employment tribunal claims where employees have claimed that promises made under the influence of alcohol were legally binding, even when the employer did not intend for this.

Vicarious Liability – Can you be liable for the actions of your staff?

The short answer is yes. Although employers are not automatically liable for the actions of their employees, you can be held liable for conduct of staff at work events, if this occurs “in the course of employment”. An employee is considered to be acting in the course of employment if they are acting in their employer’s interest or carrying out the role and responsibilities assigned to them by their employer.

If the wrongdoing carried out by an employee is sufficiently connected to their employment, then the employer can be held liable for that wrongdoing, even where the wrongdoing is not endorsed by the company or may be in breach of the employee’s contract. It is important therefore to minimise the risks by providing clear guidance on the expected standards of behaviour and in particular what behaviour is unacceptable.

Case Study

The following case illustrates where employers have been found liable for the actions of employees:

Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited [2018] EWCA Civ 2214

In this case, the Court of Appeal decided that the employer was liable for the misconduct of the Managing Director Mr Major who drunkenly assaulted one of his employees causing him to suffer severe brain damage and leaving him disabled. At the end of the ‘official’ Christmas works party, a group of employees continued drinking into the early hours at the hotel they were staying at. The employer paid for the taxis back to the hotel and it was expected that they would pay for some of the drinks at the hotel. At 3am an argument ensued about work-related matters which caused Mr Major to lose his temper and attacked Mr Bellman. There was sufficient connection between the Managing Director’s field of activities and the assault and therefore the employer was vicariously liable for the Managing Director’s wrongful conduct.

Final Preparations

We would recommend that prior to the event, you should remind staff of the expected standards of behaviour and, in particular, you should draw their attention to any discrimination; harassment and bullying policies.

It may be appropriate to conduct a risk assessment before the event – although employers are not expected to predict absolutely everything that may happen.

If you would like further advice in relation to this or think you or your team may benefit from some training, please do not hesitate to contact a member of our Employment team.

 

Michelle Bruce