Trouble on the Dancefloor?  How to stop things getting out of hand at the staff Christmas party

New research, undertaken by telecommunications provider, 4Com, has found that nearly half of UK workers (42%) would rather go to a Christmas party with work friends, than with family and non-work friends.  Employers should find it encouraging to know that their staff are building strong and meaningful relationships at work, so much so that it is important for them to have the opportunity to celebrate the Christmas festivities together. Putting on a Christmas party or other event can, therefore, be a good way for employers to show their appreciation, as well as encouraging further team building. However, in reality, 90% of employers have experienced an issue arising from a Christmas party and 10% of employees know someone who has been disciplined or dismissed for an incident connected to a Christmas party.  So, how do you go about arranging an event that will be enjoyable for staff, whilst mitigating the risks to your business?

It’s important for employers to understand that they have a duty of care towards their staff and can be held vicariously liable for the actions of one employee against another – even if the incident takes place off-site and/or outside of normal working hours.  Legislation refers to actions undertaken “in the course of employment” and, in most cases, office Christmas parties are likely to fall under this. In the case of Chief Constable of the Lincolnshire Police v Stubbs and others, for example, a police officer complained of sexual harassment by work colleagues in a pub outside working hours.  The Employment Appeal Tribunal held that social events away from the police station involving officers from work either immediately after work, or for an organised leaving party fell within the remit of “course of employment”.  It should also be remembered that employers can be held vicariously liable for the actions of third parties against their employees (and vice versa) at work-related events, so it is important to bear this in mind when selecting a venue, choosing caterers, arranging activities or entertainment etc.

Under the Equality Act 2010, an employee may bring a claim of harassment against their employer, in response to the actions of another employee at a work event. Whilst, the claim most likely to arise as a result of misbehavior at a Christmas party is probably sexual harassment, employers should be aware that protection from harassment and discrimination also extends to unwanted conduct on the grounds of age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, and sexual orientation.  The only defence in respect of a claim of harassment is if an employer can show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent the employee from performing the act, so, being able to show that all employees were aware of the organisation’s policies, would be a first step in building this defense. 

Therefore to mitigate the risks of an employer being held vicariously liable, it’s vital that they have policies in place covering workplace social events and the standards of behavior that are expected from staff.  As well as requiring staff to familiarize themselves with all relevant policies and procedures, employers should also consider the option of issuing an advisory statement to employees in advance of a Christmas party or similar work-related event.  This can remind them of conduct matters, including the dangers of excess alcohol consumption, and make it clear what behaviours could be viewed as harassment, or other forms of misconduct.  It’s important to make it clear that, whilst the employer wants everyone to have fun, the normal standards of professional behaviour apply and that anyone who does not maintain professional behaviour may be dealt with formally.

So… are our top tips for a stress-free staff Christmas party:

  • Provide staff with a clear policy on the standards of behaviour expected at office parties, setting out what kinds of behaviour are unacceptable; ensure that all employees are familiar with your policies on bullying and harassment and refer them to your social media policy as not everyone will appreciate party photos being posted on Facebook etc
  • Be aware that employers can be held vicariously liable for the actions of their employees at office parties, if those actions are deemed to have been committed in the course of employment.  When planning an event where there is the possibility that the employer could be held vicariously liable, it is advisable to undertake a risk assessment to identify any actions needed to mitigate the risks of any claims.
  • Employees who have been subjected to harassment by a third party at a company event may also be able to bring a claim against their employer, for example for constructive dismissal or negligence. Employers should, therefore, ensure that they take all reasonably practicable steps to prevent any potential third-party harassment of employees, for example when choosing a venue for the Christmas party.
  • To reduce the impact of alcohol, make sure that party-goers are provided with  plenty to eat, have lots of water available and consider a cut off time at the bar if alcohol is free.
  • To minimise the risk of any religious discrimination claim, be considerate of all staff when planning parties including the day and time, theme and catering arrangements.
  • At the office party itself, put two or three managers in charge of monitoring the activities of staff and their intake of alcohol. They should be provided with guidelines on dealing with drunk or disorderly employees and advised that they themselves are required to stay sober.
  • Consider how staff will get home after work-related social events. Employers  should issue advice in advance of an event about not drinking and driving, and encourage staff to think beforehand about how they will get home. It may be necessary to consider hiring coaches or minibuses to leave at set times towards and at the end of the event, or to provide the telephone numbers for local taxi firms.
  • It is not uncommon for staff to phone in sick the day after the Christmas party. Often they are genuinely sick, but it can be as a result of drinking or eating to excess. To minimise sickness, employers should remind their staff of their policies and procedures in relation to sickness absence and be clear on what they expect of staff and how sickness the day after the party will be managed.
  • Finally – don’t end up being too much of a Grinch! Be wary of any backlash from staff if you minimise risk to such an extent that the event stops being sufficiently ‘Christmassy’ or fun. Often demotivating staff is actually much easier than motivating them!

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