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Work Christmas parties

 

Christmas can be a great time for staff to get together, let their hair down and an ideal opportunity for an employer to celebrate team achievements and thank employees for their hard work. However the mixture of free flowing alcohol and over exuberance can lead to employees behaving badly and in these circumstances the question is can, and to what degree an employer be held responsible for the behaviour of their employees outside work?

The first thing to understand is that office parties, even those held outside office hours and not on your premises, are still considered ‘work’ and therefore employers can be held responsible for the behaviour and conduct of their staff outside work and not on business premises. For example, in sexual harassment cases and complaints about employee behaviour at parties, courts still hold the employer liable.

A recent high court decision highlighted the extent of an employer’s liability at social events involving employees.

In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, the High Court considered whether an employer was liable for one employee's violent attack on another following a company party.

A company held a Christmas party for its employees. After the party, some employees arranged between themselves to carry on to a hotel for drinks. Although this was not a planned part of the evening, the company paid for taxis to the hotel and it was expected that they would pay for some of the drinks.

Two employees were later involved in a fight when one employee (Mr M), who was also a Director and Shareholder of the company, attacked another employee (Mr B), a Manager, causing him severe brain damage. 

The principal issue for the court to consider was whether Mr M was acting in the course of his employment so as to make the company responsible for his actions as his employer. 

The court held that, as the blow had been struck after the party during a private drinking session, the employer was not responsible. This decision was reached on the basis that Mr M was not on duty just because he was in the company of other employees and that the assault was committed after a work social event, not during, which arose because of entirely voluntary and personal choices.

However, the court said that had the incident taken place during the Christmas party, the employer may have been held responsible for the assault. 

So how do you reduce the risk of an incident occurring and of being held responsible for an employee’s wrongdoing?

 

Key tips

  1. Remind employees beforehand that the Christmas party is an extension of the workplace and reinforce your messages that aggressive or bullying behaviour, and/or harassment will not be acceptable.  Make it absolutely clear that if these rules are contravened, the appropriate action will be taken in the same way as if it had happened during normal working hours.
  2. Ensure that there is no “shoptalk” at your Christmas party.
  3. Ensure that you have appropriate policies in place that clearly sets out acceptable standards of behaviour at a party, as well as clearly setting out any possible sanctions for any breaches.  You can protect your business from sexual harassment complaints by ensuring that you have an equal opportunities and/or a bullying and harassment policies in place.
  4. If alcohol is provided consider issuing tokens this may regulate consumption
  5. Provide taxi numbers for employees to contact to get home or hiring transport home can help minimise any risk.  Don’t let your employees take chances by drink driving.
  6. Ensure that an acceptable social media policy is in place.  
  7. A quick reminder to employees ahead of the Christmas party to respect the privacy of and dignity of colleagues to avoid the risk of grievances or claims of harassment and bullying.
  8. Ensure that your employers’ liability and directors’ and officers’ policies are up to date.

 

By taking these measures hopefully you can ensure that your party goes off without incident and if you do have to deal with any issues, that you have appropriate policies and procedures in place to effectively manage such issues.

Angela Clay

Managing Director

 

This article is intended as a guide and for general information only and is not a substitute for taking specific advice relating to your situation. For specific advice regarding this or any other issue relating to employment law, speak to one of our advisors by calling 01455 444222 or click here to complete our online enquiry form and an advisor will contact you shortly.