Worthingtons Solicitors

The Office Christmas Party: Festive Fun or HR Hangover?

The office Christmas party is often a highlight of many employee’s social calendars and provides staff with a great opportunity to let their hair down. However, what happens when somebody at the party goes too far?

Is an employer responsible for what happens at a Christmas Party?

Employers should be aware that despite the fact most parties are held outside of office hours and not on the company premises, the office Christmas party is seen as an extension of work and as such, normal working behaviour should be adhered to.

In the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment [2018] a recruitment company was held vicariously liable for the actions of a “significantly inebriated” manager when he punched a colleague on a Christmas night out.

Can employees be disciplined for misconduct after the Christmas party?

Yes, provided the incident is sufficiently closely connected to work an employee may find themselves subject to disciplinary action. In the case of Gimson v Display By Design Ltd [2012], an employer was found to have fairly dismissed an employee for fighting whilst walking home from the Christmas party.

Are any topics off limit at the Christmas party?

Employers should avoid discussions about career prospects or pay-rises with employees. Making promises whilst under the influence of alcohol may seem like a good idea at the time but can come back to haunt an employer after the hangover has worn off. 

In the case of Judge v Crown Leisure Ltd [2005], a director in the company promised an employee a pay rise during the work Christmas party. When the employee did not receive the promised pay rise he resigned and claimed constructive unfair dismissal. Whilst his claim was not successful, the Court of Appeal commented in their judgement that employers should be reluctant to discuss such topics given that the conversation could result in a binding verbal contract with the employee.

Should mistletoe be banned?

The Christmas party cliché is of course brought to life by alcohol flowing and employees finding themselves in a compromising situation with a colleague. Whilst employees are of course entitled to a private life, it is important to remind staff that if their behaviour would be considered inappropriate at work, it is inappropriate at the office party.

Employers should be particularly careful to avoid a situation where unwanted sexual advances are made by one member staff towards another. As well as disciplinary implications, this could also result in a claim against an employer who may be vicariously liable for their actions. In the most serious cases, this could also result in a criminal matter.

Without being classed as the ‘Office Scrooge’, it is important that employers take a pro-active approach to ensure that employees know what is and what is not appropriate at the Christmas party.

The best advice is to go, have a good time and treat people with respect. The Christmas party is a time for festive cheer and for staff members to relax before the holiday period. It should be enjoyed by all (including employers)!

Amy Barr is a Solicitor in Worthingtons Commercial Solicitors, Belfast, who regularly advises organisations and employers on employment law issues. She can be contacted on 028 90 434015 or email [email protected]

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