How to avoid the festive fear this Christmas party season

It’s almost Christmas party season. From now until Christmas (and maybe even beyond) employers all over the country may be treating their employees to slap-up meals and alcoholic refreshments to thank them for their hard work over the course of the year.

The Christmas party is a great team building session, turning work mates into real mates and giving colleagues the opportunity to get to know each other in more informal surroundings. Unfortunately, because of various pieces of legislation, employers need to set out the standards of acceptable behaviour for their workers at the Christmas Party (or at last explain this clearly to staff beforehand).

This is because:

  • Employers can be held liable for harm (under health and safety laws) or harassment caused to or by their employees, or for negligent acts of their employees.
  • Employers have a responsibility for their staff’s actions, even outside normal working hours or outside of the normal working environment. Any social event organised by the employer is an ‘extension’ of the workplace – regardless of the place or time of the event
  • Staff policies on bullying and harassment and discrimination still apply at the office party. Just make sure everyone knows this and knows what they are. Employers should remind staff that it is how a person perceives the behaviour that is taken into consideration, should a claim arise, and not how the behaviour is meant.

A piece of recent case law which emphasises the pitfalls and problems that a work party can bring is Gimson v Display By Design Ltd Mr Gimson was employed as an operative. While walking home with a group of colleagues after their work Christmas party he had a disagreement with one of his colleagues and then punched another colleague in the face. The employer subsequently instigated its disciplinary procedure and summarily dismissed Mr Gimson for gross misconduct, finding from its investigation that there was no provocation. Mr Gimson’s appeal was rejected.

How can you avoid party problems this Christmas party season?

· Pre-Party Communications Aside from details such date, time and venue, employers should provide employees with a gentle reminder that the Christmas party is an extension of the workplace and that certain standards are expected of them and that the normal disciplinary rules will apply should any incidents arise (in the least kill-joy way possible!)

· Open to all It is vital that you ensure the party is timed so that all employees, regardless of age, gender, religion, disability or any other factor have the opportunity to attend. Should any section of the workforce be seen to be favoured or discriminated against in this way, employers could find themselves under question.

· Limit the Free Bar In order to prevent people behaving in an unacceptable manner, employers need to take a sensible approach to the provision of alcohol and be alert to take quick action to nip any unruly behaviour in the bud.

· Getting Home Consider how your employees will get home after the party. Issue advice in advance about not drinking and driving. Can the employer provide transport home, e.g. taxi pooling/coaches? At the very least encourage employees to think about how they will get home.

· The Morning After Where possible arrange for your party to be held on a night were as few people as possible are working the following day. Be clear about your expectations regarding absence the next day and explain that if your expectations are breached, disciplinary action may be taken. The Christmas party should be a time to celebrate the successes of the year and enjoy spending time with colleagues outside of the work environment. If certain precautionary preparations are made, employers can relax on the night, safe in the knowledge that they have taken steps to ensure the safety of their staff, therefore avoiding potential liability.