Articles | A merry Christmas party?

As Christmas rapidly approaches and the plans for the office party are finalised, have you stopped to consider the legal implications of all the revelry?

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Ian Machray

Ian Machray

As all the shops and websites are so keen to remind us, Christmas is once again just around the corner.  However for many employers, before the cake can be eaten and the presents unwrapped, the notorious minefield of the office Christmas party will need to be navigated.  While Christmas parties are a chance for everyone to let their hair down, have a few drinks and generally enjoy themselves, they are not always fun and games and the less formal atmosphere can often lead to inappropriate behaviour.  Employers should be aware of the possible legal issues raised, and below are some examples.

Decorations

Christmas decorations in the office – what’s the harm?  Well actually it’s worth a thought as it’s easy to create fire risks or trip hazards unintentionally.  Also make sure that your employees are using something safe like a step ladder, not a swivel chair, to hang the tinsel!

Planning the party

Careful thought needs to be given to the timing, day and venue of the Christmas party. Equality laws are wide ranging and an employer’s duty to not discriminate doesn’t stop at the office door.  Although it will be almost impossible to cater for everyone’s needs, consideration should be given to, for example:

  • employees with childcare responsibilities who will need to be home at a certain time;
  • those who do not wish to drink alcohol (through choice, because they are driving or for religious or health reasons);
  • those with dietary needs (whether for disability-related or religious reasons or by preference);
  • disabled employees who might need special arrangements; and
  • employees who have religious commitments (such as Jewish employees who, if they are strictly practising, need to be home an hour before dusk on a Friday in preparation for Sabbath).

At the party

It is not uncommon for employees to overindulge at Christmas parties and employers should remember that they remain responsible for their employees’ actions.  Employees may think that the normal office rules don’t apply and behave inappropriately, potentially resulting in claims for harassment or bullying.  Employers should reiterate that employees are expected to maintain appropriate standards of behaviour, not only between themselves but also with the staff and other customers in the venue.  Although employers are no longer liable for harassment by third parties, employers can avoid some employee relations issues by carefully considering the venue and others who are likely to be there.

Employers should remember that the office jolly is unlikely to be the best place for an unofficial performance review.

After the party

Employers providing alcohol at their Christmas parties should give serious thought to how their employees will get home.  Contrary to popular belief, employers can be held responsible if their employee drives home from a work event after drinking too much.  Employers could provide coaches, arrange taxis or ensure the party ends before public transport stops running.

There will almost certainly be a number of employees who turn up late to work the next day, usually with their heads spinning and their ears ringing!  Employers should make the rules clear beforehand as to whether lateness will be tolerated; although clearly from an employee relations perspective it might be helpful to be relaxed about this.  If employers intend to take disciplinary action in relation to lateness, absenteeism or being under the influence, they should be consistent in their approach.

Employers who receive complaints of harassment after the party should take them seriously and investigate them under their grievance procedures.  If the complaint is upheld, disciplinary action will be appropriate as it would be for any other incident of harassment.

While it may not seem worth the hassle, with a bit of forward planning the party will, with any luck, go without a hitch and will hopefully be a good way to round off the year for employer and employees alike.

We hope you have a fun office party!