How to make sure your business survives the office Christmas party

Posted by Lindsey Knowles

Partner, Head of Employment Law at Kirwans Solicitors

Wed 24th, Oct

Employers are being reminded of their legal responsibilities when it comes to protecting their staff at Christmas parties after a Court of Appeal Judge held a company liable for the behaviour of its managing director at a festive get-together.

Lindsey Knowles, employment law solicitor at Kirwans law firm, is urging employers to set out strict recommendations in relation to the office party, in an attempt to avoid altercations occurring that could lead to potential claims against the business.

The warning comes following a Court of Appeal hearing last week, at which the Judge ruled that a recruitment agency was vicariously liable for the actions of its managing director after he punched one of his employees, causing him brain damage, at a Christmas party.

However, Lindsey warns that not all businesses realise the legal responsibility they have to ensure that their employees are protected at such events.

She said: “In the run-up to Christmas, most people look forward to enjoying a drink with colleagues and celebrating the festive season.

“Often though, alcohol and work can prove an unhealthy mix, and a booze-fuelled party can easily lead to personal injury, sexual harassment or discrimination by members of their staff for which the employer can be held responsible - or vicariously liable.

According to Lindsey, however, there is a defence for companies that can prove they took all possible steps to prevent the act from occurring.

“Businesses can’t possibly prepare for every eventuality, but there are actions they can take to protect both their employees and their business so that the festive celebrations act as a conduit to bring the team together - rather than cause ructions that tear it apart.”

Here, Lindsey, along with her colleagues James Barker, personal injury solicitor, and Frank Rogers from Just Motor Law, Kirwans’ motoring arm, set out their top six ‘dos’ and don’ts’ for creating a Christmas party with no nasty aftershocks.

Ground rules for planning an office Christmas party

1. Remind staff of appropriate behaviour

This can be done in the form of an email prior to the party, reminding employers that the party’s location is, in essence, an extension of the workplace, so actions that would lead to disciplinary proceedings in the course of a normal working day will do so at the party too. Staff should also be reminded of your social media policy, to avoid numerous photographs of respected professionals in party mode appearing on the internet.

2. Ensure the event is not discriminatory

The Christmas party should be all-inclusive – and that includes making sure disabled staff can access all parts of it, there are a wide range of non-alcoholic drinks for teetotallers and that cultural, religious and medical dietary requirements are taken into account. Also remember that not all staff members may celebrate Christmas, so be sensitive to the fact when planning the festivities.

3. Control the amount of free alcohol on offer

If an employee becomes injured as a direct result of consuming too much alcohol, there could be implications for the employer in terms of potential claims, so put a limit on what’s on offer, or don’t serve high alcohol spirits.

4. Arrange transport home

It’s vital that staff are able to get home safely, so either arrange transport or ensure that licensed taxis are available.

5. Communicate your ‘morning after’ policy

Let staff know well in advance of any special working arrangements there might be for the morning after the event – such as coming in late or having the morning off. Make sure they’re aware of what is and isn’t acceptable, and remind them of the importance of being entirely alcohol free before they attempt to drive. Also ensure any employees who had been drinking the night before are not asked to drive for work purposes the following day as, in certain circumstances, the employer can be prosecuted as well as the employee in relation to driving offences committed the morning after the event.

6. Conduct a workplace party risk assessment

If the party is being held on works premises, there is a responsibility on the employer to make sure the property is safe for such an event and that the area designated for the party has been risk assessed and is suitable for the purpose.

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