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With workers looking forward to the annual Christmas party to eat, drink and be merry, it is important to remember that HR issues can arise even though the party may not be at the workplace. Mixing alcohol, a party atmosphere and diverse personalities does not always make for an evening of measured fun and can leave those in HR feeling anxious and businesses exposed to HR issues.

If things do get out of control, the next few days in the office could lead to grievances, investigations, disciplinary action and even dismissal for gross misconduct. Some types of inappropriate behaviour can also give rise to discrimination claims.

Employers must be aware that, despite office parties being held outside office hours and not on your premises, these are still considered as happening ‘at work’. Therefore, the employer’s duty of care to employees does not change.

Likewise, if parties are being hosted on site at work premises and alcohol is being provided, employers will be responsible for what happens during and after the event.

The following case law demonstrates potential liabilities for employers and their responsibilities during work Christmas parties:

Livesey -v- Parker Merchanting Limited

This case focused on defining the remit of ‘course of employment’. The employment tribunal in the first instance held that sexual harassment that occurred during a car journey home from a work Christmas party was not within the course of employment therefore the employer was not vicariously liable. However, the Employment Appeal Tribunal overturned this finding and held that the employer was liable as the harassment in this case amounted to a continuing course of conduct.

Williams and others -v- Whitbread Beer Company

In this case, three claimants were work colleagues who attended a party at which drinks were paid for by their employer. They became drunk, which resulted in an incident of personal abuse aimed at a superior and violent conduct. As a result of their actions while drunk, the three claimants were dismissed. The Court of Appeal approved the employment tribunal’s decision that the claimants were unfairly dismissed as the incidents had taken place outside working hours and in circumstances when a free bar had been provided by the employer. The decision to dismiss was therefore held to be outside the band of reasonable responses.

Top tips for employers to consider ahead of the festive season

  • Remind employees of your policies and expectations.
  • Be clear on any rules around a dress code and to remain professional throughout any events connected to work.
  • To help regulate alcohol consumption, plan so that an employee has a certain number of drinks on the company and once they run out, they will have to buy their own drinks. Also ensure that non-alcoholic drinks are available.
  • Arrange transport to ensure employees get home safely.
  • Be aware of the potential risks of any information or photos posted on social media may be regarded as discrimination or bullying behaviour and could potentially damage the company’s reputation and/or business relationships. Remind staff of your social media policies and ask them to consider what they are posting/sharing.
  • Make sure your employer’s liability insurance and directors’ and office insurance are up to date.

A lot of the major legal issues faced after a work Christmas party can be easily avoided. By taking pre-emptive action, this ensures that you are best placed as an employer should any issues arise.

Please note that this information is for general guidance only and should not substitute professional legal advice. If you have specific concerns, we recommend consulting one of our legal experts.


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