A frosty reception: Don’t let the work Christmas party end in tears

With the Christmas season upon us and festive functions about to be in full swing, getting ‘merry’ with our colleagues is one way many of us like to wind down after a busy year. 

But a leading lawyer has warned the office Christmas party can sometimes create issues of its own which employers may find themselves responsible for if things go wrong.

From the risk of being landed with an expensive court case, staff members losing their jobs and firms suffering damage to their reputation, the potential fall-out from a Christmas party can be serious.

And, in light of a growing line of case law suggesting that an employer may be found responsible for their (albeit unreasonable) employees’ actions, if there is a clear link between the employment and an incident which happens, employers should be aware of how to protect themselves in advance.

Louise Plant, Senior Associate and head of personal injury at Ipswich-based law firm Prettys, looks at the ‘dos and don’ts’ to ensure Christmas parties don’t leave employers or their staff with more than just a hangover…

DO carry out a risk assessment 

Said Louise: “It is hard for an employer to protect themselves from every potential eventuality but a suitable risk assessment taking into account the venue, travel arrangements and the amount of alcohol being provided (and on what basis) amongst other things should be considered”.

This should help to identify any potential hazards, and highlight the issues that should be considered such as excessive drinking that can contribute to other risks such as spillages and broken glass.

It may also be worth considering controlling the amount of free alcohol that is on offer and ensuring soft beverages are also available for staff.  

As well as these issues, a risk assessment will outline appropriate safety measures / steps to take to reduce the risks posed by excessive drinking, and could go as far as to provide information such as what to do if an employee does become aggressive and causes harm to another. 

DON’T forget you’re still at work

Although Christmas parties often take place at a separate venue, depending upon the facts of each case, the law may recognise that venue as an extension of the workplace due to the fact that they are so closely linked to work.

And, while it is difficult to account for the actions of individuals, it is worthwhile reiterating to employees beforehand that certain rules relating to their behaviour still apply, as well as reminding them of your policies in terms of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.

The ramifications of an act of misconduct on the part of an employee could be far reaching:

  • If the misconduct is so serious as to amount to gross misconduct, this may result in the employee’s dismissal.
  • The employer’s reputation could be at risk with the actions of the employee reflecting badly upon the employer and their business.
  • If someone was injured / hurt as a result of the misconduct, a claim for personal injury and loss could be made by that person against the employer and the employee for the incident that took place.
  • The act of misconduct could result in damage to working relationships throughout the employers business.

DO be prepared to take appropriate action

Over the years the courts have expanded the principle of vicarious liability, said Louise. “Generally, employers are finding it more difficult to escape responsibility when it comes to the actions of their employees.”  

Whether it is unwanted advances, comments that could constitute sexual harassment or acts of violence, a claim for compensation against an employer for the actions of their employee could be successfully made, despite the actions of those employees appearing to be “rogue”.  

Therefore, should an incident like this arise, it is important that you take steps to record and investigate the allegations being made. An employer will then need to ensure that they take steps accordingly such as taking appropriate action against the employee, or reporting the accident to your employer’s liability insurer, again if appropriate.

Following on from the above, it is important therefore that you ensure that your insurance policies are in place that cover you and your employee’s welfare and liabilities and that those policies are up to date.  

The taking of the above steps and preventative measures could mean that if a claim is brought against an employer, they would not be found at fault for the actions or misconduct of their employee.

Each incident or case will be dependent on its own facts and the steps taken by the employer including the advice or guidance given to their employees will be considered.

Christmas parties are a great opportunity for employers and colleagues to come together and enjoy the chance to let their hair down after working hard all year. It is a shame that these considerations are required, but the implementation of some caution, may just lessen any potential long term hangover should things go wrong.

Author: Editorial Team

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