It’s less than four weeks until Christmas and the Christmas party season is about to begin. The office party is often a mixed blessing – an opportunity to boost morale and perhaps celebrate a successful year yet also a melting pot of workers letting their hair down, with potential for accidents, injuries, threats and claims.
Last year, many office parties were cancelled or postponed, or had additional measures as a result of the risks of COVID-19 and its variants. Socialising was not as easy, and so this year will likely mark the first face-to-face Christmas celebrations since the pandemic.
Employers are liable for their employees’ actions
The well-established case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd  has confirmed that an employer can be held vicariously liable for their employees’ behaviours. After a staff Christmas party, an unplanned after-party took place at a hotel bar, with the managing director of the company present along with the claimant and others. A disagreement took place which ended with the managing director punching the claimant in the head and giving him brain damage. Although this party took place after the official work party, it was still considered to be an extension of the workplace. The Court of Appeal found that the company was vicariously liable for the managing director’s actions. It held that the managing director’s remit was broad and that despite the time and place, he was purporting to act as the managing director of the company by asserting his authority as such at the time of the assault.
This case serves as a reminder that the acts of employees committed outside work can still potentially result in liability for the business.
Considerations for employers
Employers can help to protect themselves from liability by showing that they took all reasonable steps to prevent the behaviour. Such steps should include:
- Ensuring bullying and harassment, equal opportunities and disciplinary policies are up to date.
- Emailing employees prior to the party to remind them that employment policies still apply during the party and any after parties.
- Risk assessing the party venue prior to the event and considering any steps they can take to reduce risk, such as designating a manager not to drink and to be on the lookout for any unacceptable behaviour.
- Having a social media policy which prohibits posting pictures of staff without their consent.
Avoiding discrimination claims
When sending out invitations to the Christmas party, employers should be careful not to accidentally exclude anyone. This can be done by ensuring the following:
- Staff who are on maternity/paternity/family/sick leave are not forgotten when sending out the invitations;
- Staff with particular dietary requirements due to religious or other reasons have available options. This would include providing non-alcoholic drinks;
- The dress code is not discriminatory in any way, as it provides options rather than requirements;
- Any aspect of the party, such as organised entertainment, is appropriate and not offensive.
Dealing with inappropriate behaviour effectively
If any issues do arise as a result of events that took place during the party, employers should make sure they deal with these issues effectively. If an employee raises a grievance as a result of inappropriate behaviour during the party, this should be investigated and dealt with in a timely manner. Employers should not accept such behaviour from their staff, and it would be best practice for senior managers to be proactive if they notice signs of misconduct. In the longer term, employers should encourage openness and transparency and seek to create a positive work culture with accountability.
Finally, no discussion of office parties would be complete without consideration of how to deal with the following morning. Some organisations allow employees to have a later start time, whilst others take a zero-tolerance approach to hangover-induced sickness absence. Whatever your approach, decide upon your stance and communicate it clearly to employees in advance of the party.
We hope your office party over the festive season goes well!
If you require further advice on this topic, please do not hesitate to contact a member of our employment law team.