Whilst many of us have forgotten how to socialise after so much working from home, one thing not to be forgotten amidst all the fun is that action taken at the Christmas party can be considered to be "in the course of employment", and any unruly behaviour can have serious consequences for both employers and employees alike.
It's no secret that alcohol impairs judgment. After a few too many mulled wines, an employee might think that Matt from accounts, or Farah from marketing wants to join them under the mistletoe, but be warned that unwanted advances can lead to harassment claims being brought against not only the employee but also the employer. In certain circumstances, employers can be held vicariously liable for their employees' actions. Legally, the work Christmas party can be considered an extension of the workplace, even if it is held away from the workplace and outside of working hours. Any allegations of harassment should be taken very seriously by an employer, with the usual disciplinary, grievance and equal opportunities policies being followed and proper investigations carried out upon returning to work
If needs be, any troublesome employees should be politely asked to leave on the evening of the party and then if appropriate following an investigation, disciplined when back at work. The same goes for disputes between colleagues, where aggressive behaviour could lead to a dismissal. The case of Gimson v Display By Design Limited demonstrates that an assault on one colleague by another whilst walking home from the Christmas party can constitute gross misconduct justifying a dismissal. In the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited the Court of Appeal held the employer vicariously liable when a managing director assaulted a fellow employee following a Christmas party. Employers should keep a clear head and ensure that any employees who seem to have had too much to drink are spoken with and / or asked to leave before any issues can arise.
The Christmas party is, first and foremost, a chance to celebrate the hard work of all members of staff throughout the year, and it is vital that all colleagues feel included in the celebrations, not just those who celebrate Christmas. There should be no expectation or requirement to drink alcohol, or even to attend the party. Wherever possible provide a full selection of soft drinks for colleagues who choose not to drink alcohol, and include plenty of halal, kosher, vegan and vegetarian food options on the menu. Don't leave yourself open to any religious discrimination claims from employees who are indirectly excluded from the event. Make sure that all colleagues are invited, including those who are on sick leave, maternity leave, adoption leave or any other type of leave. Don't let anyone feel left out of the fun! Equally employees should not feel pressurised to attend the party, particularly when it is outside of working hours and they may have childcare or similar commitments.
The combination of alcohol, festive cheer and the loss in social skills we have all endured over the course of the pandemic could be a recipe for an HR disaster. To avoid any unnecessary problems, employees should be gently but clearly reminded before the party what standard of behaviour is required of them. Employees should be made well aware that any inappropriate behaviour has the potential to result in disciplinary action, leading to a possible dismissal depending on the severity of the conduct. Providing a clear policy surrounding behaviour is an excellent idea, and ensuring that this is communicated clearly to colleagues will also makes it easier to deal with any behaviour that is in breach of this policy. Employees should be made fully aware that their conduct on the Friday night could potentially lead to steps towards their dismissal the following Monday morning.
Employers should also be mindful of the potential reputational damage which can result from a raucous Christmas party. With social media it is very easy for photo evidence from the Christmas party to end up online. Whilst ordinarily this is not an issue, problems can arise when the standard of behaviour goes below what is expected. Employees should be reminded of the employer's social media policy and the consequences of bringing the employer into disrepute.
Finally, employers do not want to be accused of being the "fun police" and so getting the communication right is key. As stated earlier Christmas parties are a time for celebration and reward for all the hard work over the course of the year, it is important that this message is not lost when setting the parameters of what is expected behaviour.
Should you have any queries arising from the above update please do not hesitate to get in touch.
Authored by Lauren Parkinson