What happens at the Christmas party happens “at work”…

For some, the office Christmas party is the social event of the year. For others, it’s to be either endured or avoided at all costs. So what employers need to do is throw an inclusive event, which goes without a hitch (and without any complaints or claims to deal with in the New Year, either). Zoë Lagadec, principal solicitor at Mulberry’s Employment Law Solicitors, spells out what you need to know.
The When and the Who…

The key to organising any workplace event is inclusivity but not compulsion. For example, it may be much easier for women with childcare responsibilities to attend a lunch event than an after work event. Likewise, an event during normal working time enables the attendance of staff with other caring commitments (such as for elderly or disabled relatives) or with other religious affiliations. Of course, this may not be a possibility if the business needs to be operating during usual office hours.

Zoe Lagadec, principal solicitor at Mulberry’s Employment Law Solicitors
Zoe Lagadec, principal solicitor at Mulberry’s Employment Law Solicitors

If the event needs to be outside normal working hours consider planning an alternative smaller event, during working hours, for those who would be excluded from the main event, or seeing if there is way to support your team so that everyone feels part of it. But some people just aren’t the partying kind and they shouldn’t feel that they have to attend. Nobody who simply says they can’t or don’t want to come should be treated differently in any way.

It is unlikely that providing a Christmas Party could constitute unlawful religious discrimination. However, it’s important for employers to be culturally sensitive to those who do not celebrate Christmas, and who may therefore feel uncomfortable at such an event; and likewise to be flexible if at all possible when an employee asks for leave to attend an alternative cultural or religious event.

… and the How

You should assume that what happens at the Christmas Party (or other events organised by the employer) would be regarded as happening “at work”. A growing body of case law suggests that the net of the employer’s vicarious liability is being cast wider and wider. To minimise the risk of litigation, employers should try to ensure that the behaviour of some party-goers does not cause offence or harm to others.

A well-timed all-staff memo or re-circulation of your policy on social events ahead of the party would serve as a reminder to everyone that whilst they are welcome to let their hair down, it is not acceptable to start spouting offensive or discriminatory views or by inappropriate or intrusive language or physical contact. The touchstone is that if it wouldn’t be OK at your desk, it’s won’t be OK on the dance floor. A quiet word in managers’ ears may also be timely. The party is not the time for them to be sharing confidential information about pay, downsizing, or promotions.

Moderation in all things

For some it wouldn’t be a Christmas party without free flowing booze. However, providing a free bar might mean that an employer will find that it is difficult to complain when their workers, duly sozzled, behave in such a way that disciplinary action would usually be merited. Case law supports the argument that if it is the employer who provides the alcohol, it can’t then fairly dismiss staff whose bad behaviour is a consequence.

Moderation is the key. Provide food to mop up some of the alcohol and a non-alcoholic alternative for those staff who don’t imbibe for religious or other reasons. As for the harder stuff, it is a criminal offence for an employer to knowingly permit or turn a blind eye to drug use so it is vital that the party is drug free. An employer’s reputation can be seriously damaged by criminal or inappropriate activity at a staff party, especially if it’s at a public venue. Consider too how fast things spread on social media and what might end up on some ones’ face book page or twitter. Corporate reputations can be won and lost in an instant.

The morning after the night before

So, the party went well but half of the staff are either late or haven’t made it to work at all. What can – or should – you do? Well, as far as your attendance or sickness policy is concerned it is a day like any other. But again common sense is the watchword. If the employee is question is otherwise punctual and reliable then cut them some slack, but if this is just another example in a series of others, which demonstrates they are less than committed, an employer may well be justified in taking action.

Final words

The Christmas party should be fun for everyone who has chosen to attend. Getting it right means thinking ahead to ensure that everyone is encouraged and feels welcome to attend. Everyone, but particularly management and those with line management responsibility, should be briefed on keeping their behaviour respectful and appropriate. Then, take the dance floor and party like it’s 1999. Prince would want it that way.

Employment Solicitor


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