Coronavirus: Employer’s resource centre — live guidance available here

‘Tis the season to be merry - and wary of the Christmas party

BY Donald MacKinnon
Employment Law & HR

Whether you love them or loath them, office Christmas parties are probably here to stay as they become ever more expensive, elaborate and increasingly act as the main social outlet for many employers across the UK.

In 2017, the average spend per head rose by 2% to £86 (+ VAT), according to research from Venue Search, with the survey also revealing nearly a third (32%) of employers were now paying over £100 (+ VAT) per head for their slice of yuletide cheer.

As the tinsel gets dusted off and strung over computer screens, the annual celebration will already be in the diary. But before they can dish out the eggnog, employers need to be prepared and aware of potential employment issues that could arise to avoid an unwanted present this Christmas. Employment tribunals, for example, can cost anywhere between £500 and £200,000, meaning a faux pas at the office night out could leave employers with more to pay for than the turkey.

Despite the increasing costs and potential risks, taking the time to thank employees for their hard graft throughout the year is a well-worn way to encourage motivation, loyalty, and staff retention in the New Year.


Have yourself a (moderately) merry Christmas

Although staff should be encouraged to have fun, businesses should be aware that the Christmas party is considered an extension of the workplace and therefore, any inappropriate behaviour can have serious implications - for the employer and the employee.

Unsurprisingly, a significant proportion of tribunal claims that arise from out of hours festivities are alcohol-induced. As many Christmas parties are fuelled by free drinks, companies should think about setting a limit on the number of complementary beverages available and also ensure there is a plentiful supply of soft drinks and water.

An email beforehand setting out the expectations for personal conduct at a workplace event can help set a distinction between that and a normal Friday night at the pub. 


Mistletoe madness

For better or worse, a kiss under mistletoe has become a part of the  annual Christmas traditions. However, despite what a glut of festive films may have taught us, swooping in for a romantic kiss in a workplace environment may well lead to sexual harassment allegations.

With the #MeToo movement and a growing public consciousness about what is and isn't appropriate behaviour at work, organisations need to proactively tackle the threat of sexual harassment by ensuring staff are aware of equal opportunities, bullying and harassment policies prior to attending the party. It is also worth noting if a claim is raised, employers might not be held liable for the actions of their employees if they have arranged adequate regular equal opportunities training for staff.


Punch drunk

Last month, it was widely reported in the press that a sales manager is set to receive over £1m after he was left with brain damage following a punch from his boss at a Christmas party. The story offers a sobering example of what can go wrong, when high emotions, workplace rivalries and alcohol provide a heady cocktail, leading to staff scuffles.

A policy on workplace social events could cover the repercussions of any violent behaviour, but if this is deemed unnecessary, a ‘Christmas Party Statement’ could be put in place, with a designated member of staff charged with letting all staff know of the consequences of any tussles near the tinsel.


Social scenarios

Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, the list goes on and on. The ability to live stream events for the world to watch represents an obvious problem for employers during festive season - as antics from the office party go viral before Christmas pudding is served. The potential for fall out increases as celebrations continue into the night, as employees have access to email and social media and feel the urge to partake in unwitting Instagram story performances.

In any workplace, an acceptable use policy for social media is strongly advised. Ahead of the Christmas party it would be wise to remind employees videos or photos that may cause embarrassment or bring bad publicity will not be tolerated. It would also serve as a reminder that employees respect the privacy of colleagues potentially avoiding a serious workplace dispute, or allegations of bullying.


Welcome one and all

Be aware that not all staff may celebrate Christmas. Some religions and faiths do not allow the consumption of alcohol or certain foods, so consider what alternatives are required to make your party welcoming for all. Additionally, certain venues may be unsuitable for staff with disabilities. Failure to consider this may drastically damage your relationship with them and could lead to claims of discrimination.


Driving Home for Christmas

Legally there is an implied duty of care towards employees in the course of their employment, and the Christmas party comes under this definition.

While it is not fully the responsibility of the organisation to make sure that staff get home safely after the Christmas party an employer may be liable if an employee is involved in an accident due to driving while drunk.

An email beforehand advising staff to plan their journey home, providing taxi numbers or hired transport can help minimise the risk.

Finding the balance between being Santa and Scrooge can sometimes feel like a challenge at Christmas, but these tips will keep staff members safe and enable everyone to let their hair down, while guarding against a potentially expensive employment tribunal.

© Copyright of Law At Work 2021 Law At Work is part of Marlowe plc’s employee relations division