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Employment law tips for a merry office Christmas party

The annual office Christmas party is a great way to celebrate a year’s hard work and to socialise with colleagues in a relaxed environment. Yet, office parties have that notorious reputation for blurring the line between work and leisure time and encouraging alcohol-fuelled antics. With one in four UK employees vowing to drink less at their next office Christmas party, for fear of embarrassing themselves, it is fair to say that behaviour at office festivities is not always the most discreet.

It is worth stopping to consider that all the fun comes with added risks. There are a few things that employers should know in order to make their office Christmas party run as smoothly and enjoyably as possible, while lowering the risk of costly legal ramifications.

Employees should be aware that they would be held responsible, under the terms of their contract, for any inappropriate behaviour occurring at or arising from the party. In case of any wrongdoing, disciplinary action is likely to occur and both individual and company reputations could take an unfortunate hit. So, before pressing that photocopy button or telling that cheeky joke, remember the consequences that could follow. Employees should also know that their employer has a duty of care towards them and that certain arrangements should be expected.


Vicarious Liability

It is not just employees who could suffer from the results of their actions but their employers could face the consequences as well.  Employers must understand that they can be held vicariously liable for the actions of their employees at any office party. This means that the company can be held responsible for the acts and omissions of any employee if it can be proved that it took place in the course of employment. As a work party is considered an extension of the office environment, all employment law applies.  

In order to best protect itself from any possible incident that could occur at an office party, the company may consider pre-emptively issuing clear policy on the standards of behaviour it expects. Employees should understand that this is not the boss being a Grinch – it is a necessary legal precaution.

It should be set out in the employee handbook that fighting, excessive alcohol consumption, the use of illegal drugs, sexist or racist remarks and comments about sexual orientation, disability, age or religion will not be tolerated. Referring employees to the handbook in advance will ensure that employees know exactly what is expected of them and that they will be held personally responsible should they not act in accordance with the policy. 


Inclusion

Maintaining an atmosphere of inclusion is also important for planning the office Christmas party. If any section of the workforce seems to be favoured or discriminated against in any way, the employer could be called into question under the Equality Act.

This means that attendance at the party should not be made mandatory. For example, it may not be possible for those caring for a family to attend an evening event.

The employer should also not forget to invite those who are on maternity or paternity leave and those who are absent from illness or an injury, considering whether their ailment would prevent attendance.

Beforehand, employers should inquire whether there are any special dietary requirements that must be met. Having food and drink that is suitable for everyone is necessary for an inclusive and happy party. This also includes providing soft drink alternatives for those who many not partake in the consumption of alcoholic beverages.

If booking any entertainment, ensure that the content would not cause offence to any group of people.


Duty of care

Employers have a duty of care to their employees and should take all possible measures to ensure their well being and safety.

Limiting the supply of alcohol, such as the availability of an open bar, and offering soft drink alternatives including water is best practice when it comes to the provision of beverages. Ensure that plenty of food is available as well, be respectful of those who are not drinking alcohol and keep an eye out for any younger members of staff. Remember that the drinking age in the UK is 18 and no employee below this age is legally allowed to consume alcohol.

It is also advisable to designate a few willing managers who would remain sober to monitor the alcohol intake of staff. Providing guidelines on handling disorderly employees could also help them to mitigate any inappropriate behaviour that could escalate.

Employers should consider hiring coaches or minibuses to leave at set times toward the end of the event to ensure that their employees can return home safely. In any case, providing the telephone numbers of local taxi firms should be held as the standard.

Also ensure that the venue of the party complies with all health and safety regulations and that it has appropriate access for disabled staff members.


Social media

Be aware that it is very likely that personal social media posts will arise from the event. After all, everyone is together having a merry time and will probably want to take photos and share them.

In consideration of this, issue a clear social media policy before the party. Consent should be given before photos are posted of others to avoid any data protection issues. Make it known that inappropriate messages and photos should not be posted, as it can cause offence or embarrassment not just to the individual(s) but to the employer as well.


The morning after

If the office Christmas party falls on a weekday, be clear about your expectations of attendance in the workplace the morning after as employees may be feeling a bit worse for wear. Ensure that staff members know the extent of leniency that will be enacted regarding showing up to work late and that disciplinary action could be taken following a breach in the attendance policy. Know that past tolerance of absence after festive occasions could be used as evidence that disciplinary action against an individual is unfair. Employers may even want to inform employees of their holidays remaining in case there is interest in taking the day off following the party.

The office Christmas party should be a fun event to celebrate and socialise. By following this advice, employers can ensure that their office party runs as smoothly as possible. By taking this protective pre-emptive action, the night of the event can be more carefree.

However, a good employer should always be prepared to deal with any allegations of inappropriate behaviour following the party seriously and sympathetically.

Our employment law team is equipped to provide any advice you may require in regards to office parties and can help manage any legal claims that may arise. If you have any questions about making your office Christmas party a safe and merry event, contact us today.


Edward O’Brien

Litigation and Employment Solicitor

01258 483601


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