Managing The Office Christmas Party
The office Christmas Party can be a great way for employers to provide a thank you to staff and for employees to relax and have fun – not to mention providing a source of conversation (and gossip) to fill the coming new year!
But there are pitfalls for the employer, particularly where over consumption of alcohol is involved.
Employers should remain aware of their duty of care to all employees. This will apply equally whether during the working day or during a work organised party.
Employers should therefore ensure that they think ahead in order to minimise any problems. Practically, this could be done by issuing a written statement (perhaps in the form of a party invitation) making clear the standards of behaviour which are expected. Employers should always approach organisation of a party with the needs of all their employees in mind.
Below are some of the most common issues and suggestions on how best to avoid legal claims and, equally importantly, unhappy employees.
Alcohol and absences
While employers will want (and be expected to!) to provide a number of celebratory drinks for employees to reward them for their hard work over the year, remember that the presence of a free bar will encourage excessive alcohol intake. Employers may want to provide a finite amount of free alcohol and should be prepared to approach employees who seem to have drunk too much with a request to take things easy. Providing plenty of food early on and throughout the night can also help. Ensuring that there is other entertainment away from the bar is a good idea.
Ensure that alcohol free alternatives and water are always available and respect employees who do not drink – employees should not feel pressurised into drinking to excess (or at all). Employers cannot allow under age drinking so if employees are under 18 employers should be prepared to keep an eye on them.
If a Christmas party is arranged on a work night, employers should consider sending an email to staff in advance, to remind them that they are expected to attend work the following day and that unauthorised absence will be treated as usual.
If an employee fails to turn up for work the day after the party, he or she should be required to certify the reason for the absence in the usual way. If there is no adequate explanation for the absence it may be subject to the disciplinary process like any other unauthorised absence.
If an employer suspects that an employee has attended work under the influence of alcohol or drugs it should act quickly to remedy the situation and to show that the issue is taken seriously. The employer should hold a meeting with the employee to ascertain the seriousness of the situation, to remind the employee of policy in relation to alcohol misuse and to warn that a breach could lead to disciplinary action.
If the employee poses a danger to themselves or others or is not up to carrying out their role, the employer should send him or her home. Consideration should be given to arranging transport to ensure the employee is safe. In serious situations, and where necessary, the employer may have to suspend the employee whilst a further investigation is undertaken.
Whilst there will be no issue at most Christmas parties, there is a risk of incidents of harassment, particularly where excess alcohol is involved. Under the Equality Act 2010, harassment that is related to a relevant protected characteristic (ie age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation) is unlawful. The Act makes it clear that unlawful harassment includes harassment that is related to the perception that someone has a protected characteristic (whether or not that perception is correct) or his or her association with someone who has a relevant protected characteristic. The employer’s liability for potential harassment is therefore wide.
Although it is unlikely to take place during work hours and may not take place on work premises an employer’s Christmas party is a work event. The employer will therefore be vicariously liable for acts of harassment by its employees unless it can show that it has taken reasonable steps to prevent such incidents arising. Reasonable steps will include putting policies and training in place to prevent harassment, discrimination and bullying, ensuring that employees are aware that such policies still apply at the Christmas party and dealing swiftly and appropriately with grievances if they are raised.
Employers should consider potential discrimination claims arising out of the Christmas party and then take steps to eliminate or minimise the risk. For example, if employees’ partners are going to be invited the employer should make sure that it extends the invitation to same-sex partners. The venue needs to be accessible for everyone and suitable for employees of all ages. Ideally, the party should take place at a time that is not going to cause problems for a particular group(for example, a party on a Friday night may result in discrimination against Jewish employees because their Sabbath begins on Friday night). Catering arrangements are important and any dietary requirements, including religious dietary requirements, should be taken into account.. The dress code should not be one that may cause offence to any group or particular employee.
As above, employers must remain aware that they have a duty of care towards employees and this duty extends to events like the Christmas party. An employer could be liable if an employee is involved in a drink-driving related accident on the way home from the work Christmas party.
Employers can reduce the chance of employees taking risks on their journey home, and reduce their own risk of liability as a result, by thinking the arrangements through in advance. An employer could hire transport for employees, such as a minibus, provide contact details for local taxi firms and remind employees to organise their trip home in advance. These steps will minimise the risk of employees coming to harm.
Whilst there are issues to keep in mind, the work Christmas party should, with a little forethought, be a fun event for employees and employer alike and that is, after all, the most important factor at any party.
This article was produced on the 12th December 2014 by our Employment team for information purposes only and should not be construed or relied upon as specific legal advice.