13 December 2022 by Susanna Spencer

Work Christmas parties – what employers should watch out for?


In the aftermath of Covid, many workplaces are gearing up for the first in-person Christmas party in three years.

In this article, we consider the employment law themes that often come up on the subject of Christmas parties, and what employers can do to mitigate against any risks.

Are work Christmas parties still work?

In short, yes.

It is a point that some staff do not appreciate (or overindulge a little too much to care about).  While the office / firm / department Christmas party may not take place within the workplace, that does not mean that staff can behave as if they were not at work.

It is a point that works both ways. Employers are entitled to take disciplinary actions against employees for misconduct occurring during work parties and employees who have been the victim of mistreatment at the Christmas party can take action against their employer.

Broadly speaking, liability for any injuries or harassment suffered by employees at a work Christmas party will be attributable to employers. This is especially the case where the event occurs straight after work, management are in attendance and there have been internal comms regarding arrangements for the event.

It may also be possible that even an ‘after party’ attended by a group of employees outside the ‘official’ work Christmas party may leave the employer liable for any incidents occurring there. Each case will turn on its own facts. However, factors such as a senior manager attending the after party and discussing workplace matters whilst there would increase the likelihood of a finding of responsibility for the employer.

What sorts of things can go wrong?

Where do we start?!  The list of potential misdemeanours is endless and employment lawyers and HR practitioners can dine out for ages regaling stories of Christmas party classics.  A common denominator is  the ‘liberating’ effect of alcohol and the desire to ‘let your hair down’ after a hard year’s work.

Common incidents include:

  • Verbal and physical violence towards line managers and / or colleagues.
  • Pay disputes with long held grievances relating to salary and bonuses being aired and managers making ‘promises’ they cannot, or have no intention to, keep.
  • Sexual harassment as staff make moves and say things that are not acceptable in the workplace or anywhere else.
  • Harassment on other grounds whether through a secret Santa; the persistent challenging of someone’s beliefs; or otherwise.

What can employers do?

It is of course somewhat out of an employer’s control how events at a work Christmas party will unfold. Nonetheless, we would recommend certain steps are taken to ensure that things go smoothly and any potential fallout is minimised.

When preparing for the party and employer should:

  • make sure no one is excluded from the party – remember to invite employees who are on sick leave, on holiday or family leave.
  • remember and accept that not everyone will want to go to the party. Some employees have family commitments or religious objections. No one should be compelled to attend.
  • seek to accommodate cultural and dietary requirements. Catering should be inclusive, with provision for all dietary requirements and non-alcoholic options available.
  • remind employees that it is a work event, the standards of behaviour expected and, if a free bar is provided, that they should consume alcohol sensibly.
  • remind managers that they are expected to take a lead and intervene at an early stage if matters start to get out of hand.
  • consider whether one manager should have responsibility for keeping an eye on everyone and managing the evening as it progresses.

As the festivities kick in, employers should keep an eye on the mood of the party; any employees who look like they may get themselves into trouble; and the amount of alcohol consumed.  If intervention is needed to remove a member of staff to avoid an incident, or to call time on the bar, then it should be taken.

After the party, employers should:

  • seek to ensure everyone has left the venue and those that need assistance with getting home are given appropriate help.
  • be alert to post party fall-out, gossip, photographs, social media postings etc. and take any complaints about gossip or inappropriate posting seriously.
  • investigate complaints and deal with inappropriate behaviour promptly and in line with their policies and procedures.

Christmas is the season to be jolly and the Christmas party should be a jolly event for all staff. People will do stupid things, but it is important to keep a sense of perspective. Sensible planning and sensible management should help navigate the Christmas party minefield in a pragmatic way.  However, if someone does cross the line, then action should be taken.

If you want to discuss anything arising out of your Christmas party, please do not hesitate to get in touch with either Susanna Spencer.

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