The office Christmas party: dos and don’ts for employers

While the festive season is traditionally the time to be jolly, businesses risk a New Year’s headache if they fail to understand their legal responsibilities

Employers can be held vicariously liable for the actions of their staff, if these amount to discrimination or cause personal injury. Consequently, employers could be on the hook for considerable amounts of compensation if things go wrong.

There are limits to the extent of a company’s liability: any wrongdoing must be carried out by an employee in the course of employment, but the legal boundaries are not always clear. When it comes to seasonal celebrations, even if an event is held outside of working hours and the workplace, an employer can still be liable. A company will only have a defence if it can show that it took all reasonable steps to prevent the act.

With alcohol flowing and inhibitions reduced, the potential for misplaced humour or unwanted touching leading to legal liability for discrimination or sexual harassment is an unwelcome risk for employers.

So what are the dos and don’ts for organisers of these events?

1. Do make sure staff are informed about the ‘ground rules’ for celebrations

No one wants to be a humbug but it is vital that everyone understands what is acceptable. The consequences of any unacceptable behaviour should be made clear. The easiest way of doing this might be to email staff before the party, reminding them that relevant workplace policies such as the harassment policy continue to apply and that the employer will take action under its disciplinary policy if necessary.

2. Do consider the needs of all employees when planning the party

For example, will the timing and location of the party allow for those who need to arrange childcare to take part? Will disabled staff need assistance to get to or access the party venue? Will the food provided meet all employees’ religious and cultural requirements?

3. Don’t forget ‘elf and safety'!

Make sure steps are taken to protect employees during and after the event; for example, putting in place arrangements for transport home at the end of the night. If the employer is not providing its own transport, it could arrange licensed cabs for staff to ensure they do not take undue risks. Alternatively, the party should be finished in time for people to use public transport.

4. Do make sure that non-alcoholic drinks are available

If providing a free bar, that some restrictions are put in place to prevent excessive alcohol intake – such as not providing hard spirits or limiting how many drinks one person can order.

5. Do remember not everyone celebrates Christmas

If you have staff of different faiths for whom Christmas is not a significant festival, ensure that they don’t feel excluded.

6. Don’t let social media postings by staff at the event get out of control

Does the employer really want to risk its reputation with photographs of staff in party mode, looking the worse for wear, or the embarrassment of inappropriate messages being uploaded? Employers should have a social media policy or rules in place, and staff should be reminded of these before the party.

8. Do have a consistent policy regarding post-party absenteeism

Managers should all be ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ the morning after the party (if this is a work day); the employer should decide beforehand how lenient or not it is going to be regarding lateness or absenteeism. Again, this should be communicated to staff so they are fully aware of the consequences of failing to attend work. 

Katy Meves is a partner at niche employment law firm Springhouse Solicitors