The office Christmas party can be a great way to boost morale and build relationships with colleagues. However, with employees ‘letting their hair down’ and getting into the festive spirit (often fuelled by the availability of free alcohol), employers may be left feeling anxious about the fallout from the end of year celebrations.
We provide a short 5-point guide highlighting the steps that can be taken to help to avoid any post-party, HR hangover:
1. OFFICE PARTIES ARE AN EXTENSION OF THE WORKPLACE
Office Christmas parties are considered to be an extension of the workplace, therefore employers can be held liable for any incidents that occur at such events as they are considered to have happened ‘in the course of employment’. Liability may also extend to events that occur following the formal event, unless it can be shown that an after-party was an entirely independent, voluntary, and discreet event of a different nature to the one hosted by the company. This was the view taken in one case where a managing director physically attacked one of his employees at a gathering after the Christmas party. This “after party” was found to be a ‘follow on’ rather than a separate event so that the employer was vicariously liable for the MD’s actions.
Some employers may feel that issuing a statement to employees in advance of a Christmas party could be a diplomatic way of reminding employees that, whilst they may not be in the workplace, the normal rules of conduct still apply, and they will be subject to the usual disciplinary sanctions should any allegations of misconduct arise.
Employers should make the event inclusive and ensure arrangements are not considered to be discriminatory. In a recent case, an employee on maternity leave was successful in bringing a claim of discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy and maternity as she was not invited to the office Christmas party. Employers should also ensure that the catering arrangements take account of different individual and religious dietary requirements. Employers have a duty to protect employees from unwanted conduct so be careful to ensure that your choice of entertainment will not be viewed as offensive by any employees. Employers should consider briefing entertainers in advance of the party to ensure that their material is suitable.
3. MAKING PROMISES
Managers should also avoid discussions about career prospects or remuneration with employees, as words of encouragement and good intentions could be misinterpreted and may be considered to be contractually binding. In one case an employee resigned, claiming constructive dismissal on the grounds that the company director had broken a contractual promise made at a previous Christmas party to increase his salary. Although the employee in this case was unsuccessful, employers should be wary of making such ‘promises’ in the euphoria of the Christmas party.
4. BE CAREFUL OF THE USE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
The increasing use of social media platforms including video upload sites such as TikTok brings other risks associated with office Christmas parties. Uploading pictures and videos of fellow colleagues without their consent could raise data protection issues and, depending upon the content, could also result in reputational damage to the company. Employers are advised to have social media policies in place and ensure employees are informed of the likely consequences or disciplinary sanctions which could result from inappropriate use of social media.
Any complaints raised in cases of alleged misconduct arising from a Christmas party should be taken seriously and properly investigated. Any failure to do so could result in an employee resigning and claiming constructive dismissal and possibly bringing a claim for discrimination. Where more than one employee is involved in an incident, employers should ensure they are treated equally (regardless of seniority) with regards to any investigation process or disciplinary sanctions, especially where memories are blurred by alcohol and the evidence is unclear.
If you would like any further advice, please get in touch with a member of the team or visit our Employment and HR service page for more information.
The information on this site about legal matters is provided as a general guide only. Although we try to ensure that all of the information on this site is accurate and up to date, this cannot be guaranteed. The information on this site should not be relied upon or construed as constituting legal advice and Howes Percival LLP disclaims liability in relation to its use. You should seek appropriate legal advice before taking or refraining from taking any action.