It seems that in many sectors at least, hybrid working is here to stay. This has presented challenges to many employers in terms of trying to maintain a sense of community within their workplaces. In this respect, workplace Christmas parties present an invaluable opportunity to rebuild some cohesion and help staff members develop and maintain good relations outside of a strictly work based environment.
However, employers should still be conscious of their duty of care to party attendees and the potential pitfalls that might arise in relation to these events, which can give rise to employee complaints and potentially employer investigations and other HR processes.
Employers may be vicariously liable for incidents that occur at the Christmas party regardless of whether it takes place outside of the workplace or normal working hours. In the UK case, Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited an employer was found liable for brain damage caused to an employee who was assaulted by the Managing Director at a Christmas after party. In defending any claim of vicariously liability, an employer must be able to show that it has taken all reasonable steps to stop the action from occurring.
Ever year around this time or early in the New Year, we invariably receive calls from clients about a HR related complaint arising from a Christmas party night out.
Of course, a balance can be struck between exercising caution and ensuring that the event has the desired effect of allowing staff to build stronger connections and feel rewarded in a fun, relaxed setting. This can easily be achieved by putting a few simple safeguards in place and being mindful of the following:
- Conduct: It is important to remind staff that the Christmas Party is still a workplace event and that a certain standard of conduct is still expected. In this regard, the consumption of alcohol can cause issues in terms of staff behaviour. Policies like the Code of Conduct, the Dignity at Work Policy and Social Media polices all still apply to such events and it is important that employers make it clear that normal, acceptable standards should still prevail. A gentle and sensible group email reminder on the days before the event is often sufficient to remind employees accordingly. It should also be noted that these expectations cover any after party and after after party!
- Safety: An employer could be liable for accidents occurring at Christmas Parties, especially if the event is held on its premises but sometimes also if it is at an external venue. If the party is on the premises, consider implementing control measures to reduce the risk of accidents. Any external venue should also be checked to ensure there is minimal health and safety risk to staff.
- Transport and Logistics: While it is unlikely that an employer's legal duty of care includes measures to ensure employees get home safely, it may still be good practice to encourage employees to pre-book taxis or otherwise consider homeward transport options. Ensure that the venue and transport is suitable for all employees, including disabled employees. Consider whether the venue can cater to any special dietary requirements that staff may have.
- Performance related discussions: Managers should avoid getting drawn into performance/remuneration related discussions with staff, even if remarks were meant as a way of encouraging or motivating the staff member in question. These types of discussions at such events are rarely a good idea and can lead to arguments or to mistaken impressions that certain assurances or promises have been given in terms of progression or salary, leaving employers in awkward positions.
- Inclusivity: It is worthwhile to keep in mind that not all employees celebrate Christmas, and that efforts to make them feel included should be incorporated. This may include considering the role alcohol plays in the event, which can cause some people discomfort for all sorts of religious, cultural, or personal reasons. While it might be unrealistic to expect employees will not indulge to some extent, it should not be portrayed as the be all and end all.
- GDPR: If the organisation is planning on posting or circulating photos from the Christmas party, ensure that this is GDPR compliant.
- Enjoy (sensibly)!
This document is for general information only and not intended as professional advice.
Advice should always be taken before acting or not acting on any of the issues identified.
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