An employers' guide to having an uneventful Christmas party

With Christmas just around the corner many workplaces are preparing themselves for the Christmas party. It has been reported that as great a proportion as 90% of employers have had to deal with an employment problem stemming from a Christmas party and 10% of employees know someone who has faced disciplinary proceedings or dismissal as a result of fall-out from their work’s Christmas party.

Christmas Party Employment Law

By setting some ground rules employers can hope for an uneventful Christmas party. You need not be the Grinch that stole Christmas.

Code of Conduct

Remind employees in advance of the party that while you hope they really enjoy themselves, there are certain standards of conduct which must be adhered to in order to ensure that everyone has a good time. Clearly state that drunken and/or disorderly behaviour, illegal drug taking, verbal or physical abuse, harassment of a sexual or discriminatory nature and unauthorised absence the day after the party are strictly prohibited and any such behaviour is likely to result in disciplinary action.

Alcohol

Be aware that if you provide free alcohol, you may not be entitled to hold employees accountable for inappropriate drunken behaviour. If you are going to provide free alcohol you should place a limit on the amount provided and it's also a good idea to make sure that there is plenty of food available throughout the night. It is also important to respect those who choose not to drink alcohol either for religious reasons or through personal choice. Ensure that there are plenty of non-alcoholic drink options.

Employers should consciously avoid falling into the trap of conducting a staff appraisal during the office party! In one case, an employee claimed his boss had indicated that a higher salary would be forthcoming. He qualified this statement with the words “in due course”. Of course, his pay stayed the same and so the employee promptly tendered his resignation and filed a claim for constructive dismissal. The employer won the case but only because the nature of the promise was vague.

Fighting

Case law has highlighted that employers can fairly dismiss employees for fighting at a Christmas party. In one case, an employment tribunal held that it was reasonable for the employer to dismiss an employee for punching a colleague in the face during the walk home from the Christmas party. The employee in question argued that this was not misconduct because it happened outside the course of employment. The tribunal, however, held that the incident following the Christmas party was sufficiently closely connected to work, as it was the party itself that created the situation resulting in the incident, i.e. the walk home.

Similarly, an employee was dismissed following a "tussle" which, after the event, both employees involved played down and dismissed as a "play fight" and "wrestling match". This dismissal was also held to be reasonable – it was irrelevant that the employees subsequently attempted to play down the incident and the employer was entitled to treat fighting with a colleague as "a matter of the utmost seriousness".
These decisions highlight the importance of employers reminding their employees of acceptable standards of conduct outwith the workplace and after hours. Otherwise, employees may not be aware that behaviour which they would never dream of engaging in during working hours and in the workplace will be treated the same if it occurs at work social events.

Don't discriminate

Be considerate in the way in which you plan the party. Remember that not all religions celebrate Christmas so don't put undue pressure on anyone to attend the party. Ensure that the venue is suitable for disabled employees and that any special dietary requirements are noted in advance and catered for.

Social Media

Be aware of the likelihood of pictures and videos from the party being posted on social media. Make sure your employees know exactly what your rules are regarding the use of social media in relation to work and work related events.

Policy perfect

Make sure that your bullying and harassment, equal opportunities, grievance, disciplinary and social media polices are up to date and that employees have been reminded of their terms.

Christmas party romance

It is not uncommon for office romances to blossom at the Christmas party. Be clear on what your stance is on office relationships, particularly if they are between a line manager and their direct report. Do you require such relationships to be disclosed? If so be ready to follow up on this if necessary.

A survey once found that, whilst 80% of women would laugh off a pass made by a male co-worker, boss or client, 13% would lodge a complaint. An extreme example involved a man telling a female colleague that she “needed a good man”, adding that he would quite like to ‘have relations with her’ (or words similar). At the Christmas party, the man pulled her dress down and made disparaging comments. A claim of sexual harassment succeeded and an award of £10,000 was made for injury to feelings.

Employers can also find that they end up taking responsibility for unwanted advances between co-workers, if the employment tribunal forms the view that the behaviour is evidence of a culture of victimisation or harassment.

Hopefully with the boundaries set and understood in advance the Christmas party will be a very merry one for all involved with no unwanted hangovers for HR!

Get in touch

If you would like to speak to someone about the issues raised, please get in touch.