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With the festive season approaching, companies will be looking forward to celebrating the end of the year with a Christmas party. However, companies must act responsibly by putting provisions in place to safeguard their workforce and themselves.

Any company-organised office party, whether in or out of working hours and on or off site, is an extension of the workplace which can test a business across the board on its employment policies and its culture.

Each year there are cases reaching the courts arising from incidents at work parties. Often the focus is on creating a morale-boosting and team-building event, but this must be balanced against the employment policies in place and the company’s reasonable expectations of behaviour. Companies are advised to take steps to safeguard themselves against any negative fallout.

A substantial risk for employers is that they will be held vicariously liable for the misconduct of their employees at such events. In the latest case, Shelbourne v Cancer Research UK, an employee suffered serious back injuries after an over-excited colleague lifted her up at a work party, lost his balance and dropped her to the floor. She claimed negligence on the part of her employers, pointing to the presence of alcohol and its impact on behaviour.

While in that case, the company was able to demonstrate that rigorous risk assessments had been undertaken, and the court ruled there was insufficient connection between her colleague’s work role and their actions at the party, such cases are complex and the outcome can be very different.

In the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, an employee was left with long term brain injuries when the managing director hit him after a fight broke out. Despite the assault happening at an unplanned ‘after-party’, the company was found liable for the assault when the case reached the Court of Appeal, with the judge ruling that the senior nature of the role of managing director created a position of authority that was held around the clock.

To protect staff, it’s important that companies take the necessary steps to assess and guard against potential risks, including setting out expected standards of behaviour, limiting the amount of alcohol and having a clear boundary for when the event will close.

Case law and common practice suggests that amongst the most common forms of misconduct at company run events are aggression and sexual harassment. Both forms of misconduct can lead to substantial claims for compensation, with the associated damage to a company’s reputation, which is clearly an unwanted outcome of what should be the ‘most wonderful time of the year’.

We advise companies to complete the following checklist to protect themselves during the festive season:

Christmas party checklist:

  • Set out the company’s attitudes to alcohol consumption at the party – it’s particularly important to set clear boundaries as there is generally a zero-tolerance policy towards alcohol in the workplace and a company organised event is deemed to be an extension of the workplace.
  • Make sure non-alcoholic drinks are available if alcohol is being served, for those who may not want to drink on the night, whether because they are driving, for cultural and religious reasons or by preference.
  • Manage overall alcohol consumption so employees don’t lose their usual workplace inhibitions. Remind everyone that actions or comments that would be unacceptable behaviour in the workplace still hold in the relaxed atmosphere of the party.
  • Be clear about when the event will close and make everyone aware at the appropriate time that the party is over.
  • Be alert for health and safety risks the morning after, if it’s a working day, particularly where machinery or driving is involved, in case anyone is still under the influence of alcohol.
  • If you become aware of events that took place at the party which do not accord with the company’s expected standards of behaviour, act promptly to investigate and make sure grievance or disciplinary policies are followed.

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.