News & Insights

Ho Ho… Oh No? Avoiding Risk at Work Parties

With the Christmas party season looming, Katie Burley considers how employers might mitigate the risks that can arise from work socials.

As we approach December, many employers will be putting plans in place for their staff Christmas parties. With spirits often high with the excitement of pending festivities, these events, while often great fun, can sometimes have unfortunate consequences. At best, some stories of minor embarrassment might emerge to be regaled the following morning; at worst, you could end up with a criminal offence or serious HR issue on your hands.

Two types of employment law headache can typically emerge for employers following office parties. The first is disciplinary action relating to an employee (or employees), and the second relates to liability of the employer itself for acts that employees have undertaken. I will look at those in turn, starting with the employees.

Unfortunately, no matter what you do, some employees get things wrong at work events. Damage to property, verbal abuse or harassment of staff, drug use, physical fighting – the possibilities are quite extensive and the team here at FSP have advised clients on all manner of them over the years! Without taking all the fun out of your event, there is a limit to what you can realistically do to completely prevent issues arising – however, there are a few pre-emptive measures that you can put in place to help.

First, it can be wise to ensure that your workplace policies on harassment, bullying, discrimination, drugs and alcohol etc. are all up to date and brought to the attention of staff. Doing this regularly is of course best practice (simply putting the policies in a handbook is unlikely to be enough to protect you), but a well-timed reminder could be in order at this time of year. Issuing a friendly note to employees of the expected standards of behaviour and reiterating that attendance at a party is no excuse for breaching the organisation’s policies or otherwise acting inappropriately can be useful.

Second, measures can be considered for the event itself, such as a limit on any open bar, providing food, or the appointment of ‘responsible individuals’ who can be a sober point of contact and/or there to monitor any issues that arise. Many organisations request that employees do not take videos or photographs at their social events and/or look to prohibit them from being published on social media to avoid issues with those staff who don’t want their image being shared in such a way without their consent. Companies often look to extend this to professional sites such as LinkedIn, so that they have control of how their social events are displayed externally to clients and contacts. It can also be sensible to have a plan in place for who will deal with any incidents that occur and what action you would like to be taken if needing, for example, to ask someone to leave. Being able to arrange for a taxi home for overly inebriated guests can often be a sensible plan.

If your best endeavours have failed and employees do get things wrong, taking disciplinary action after the event is often an unfortunate but necessary consequence. It is important that you follow up on issues that have arisen at work event (whether or not a grievance has been raised by any affected parties) and act consistently in any steps that are subsequently taken. Certain behaviours that arise during office parties can of course be deemed gross misconduct and it is important to remember that, just because something happened at a party, it does not mean that you should ignore it.

From the employer’s side, it is important to be aware that events which take place outside of work premises and/or hours may still result in an employer being found vicariously liable for the actions of employees. The key question is whether the relevant conduct occurred “in the course of employment”, which might include acts that take place at a Christmas party organised by the employer. Tribunals apply a broad interpretation to the phrase “in the course of employment”, which is to be broader still in discrimination claims. Even deliberate, violent acts by employees, which have not been encouraged or authorised by the employer, can sometimes fall within this heading and result in liability. Employers are advised, therefore, to act thoughtfully when planning social events and to consider putting some of the suggested measures above in place to help safeguard themselves in the event of an incident arising.

If you would like help with reviewing, amending or drafting your organisation’s policies, or require any other employment advice, please get in touch at [email protected]