Work Christmas Parties and steps you can take to minimize the risk of an HR Hangover

This article provides a brief legal update and offers some practical advice to guide organisations through the festive party season.

With Christmas fast approaching and the festive office party season soon reaching full swing, a recent Court of Appeal case serves as a timely reminder that an employer may be vicariously liable for the actions of their employees during a party, even if the party takes place outside of an organisations time.  

The original High Court decision made in December 2016 in relation to the Bellman V Northampton Recruitment Ltd case found that the employer was not vicariously liable for an assault at social gathering that followed on from the official work Christmas party as the incident in question was too far removed from the employment context.  Significantly, this decision was overturned in October 2018 by the Court of Appeal where it was determined that in this particular case, there was a sufficient link established to the employer which therefore lead to the employer ultimately being found liable for the damage caused.

Whilst it has long been accepted that a social function, such as the office Christmas party, which is supported and endorsed by an employer is an extension of the workplace, this recent decision has made it almost impossible to see when an employer will not be vicariously liable for the acts of their employees.

The lesson from this case is not to cancel your Christmas parties but rather that employers should simply remind employees and particularly senior managers of the standards of behaviour expected at such events.

Pre-party memos could be used to remind staff that any social event organised by the employer is automatically classified as an extension of the workplace, regardless of the time or place of the event. As such employees (and other guests) are required to behave in a mature and responsible manner throughout the event. In light of the recent legal ruling it would also be prudent to extend this reminder to encompass any after parties that may follow on from the official work party.

Any such memo should also remind staff of the organisations discrimination, harassment and bullying policies, policies regarding the misuse of drugs and alcohol and social media policies. It should make it very clear that unacceptable behaviour or improper conduct will not be accepted and any such behaviour, either at the official work party or at any follow-on party will be treated as a serious disciplinary matter, which, depending on the circumstance, may result in dismissal. Unacceptable behaviour includes, but is not limited to:

  • Excessive drunkenness
  • The use of illegal drugs
  • Unlawful or inappropriate discrimination or harassment
  • Violence such as fighting or aggressive behaviour, serious verbal abuse, or the use of other inappropriate language.

Furthermore, should your Christmas party fall on a week night, the expectation regarding staff attendance at work the following day should be made clear.

In addition to the pre-party memo, detailed below are some steps which organisations could also take to help prevent any New Year HR hangovers:

  • Make sure the Christmas party is inclusive – consider an appropriate venue and ensure invites should go to everyone, including staff who are part-time, off sick or those who are taking other periods of leave. Whilst remembering to invite everyone is important, it is just as important not to force people to attend.
  • Provide non-alcoholic drinks and remind employees that alcohol should be consumed in moderation. Make it clear that the provision of alcohol (eg free bar) should not be taken as an excuse to drink excessively and do not promote excessive drinking (eg by encouraging drinking games).
  • Think about how employees will get home after the party. Show consideration as to how employees will get home safely; encourage employees to check when last trains or buses are running and give them phone numbers for registered taxi companies.

Finally, it is of course important to have fun and enjoy the opportunity to socialise with colleagues but equally important is keeping it memorable for all the right reasons!

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