How can businesses reduce the legal risks of Christmas parties?

James Tamm explains what organisations should communicate to employees ahead of social occasions that are still going ahead during the festive period

With the emergence of the Omicron variant, some employers will now be planning to cancel or postpone their in-person end-of-year celebrations. But despite new restrictions announced by the prime minister – including working from home where possible, commencing on Monday (13 December) in England – Christmas parties can still take place if guidance is followed. If you're still hoping to go ahead, it’s vital to remind employees of your expectations. This will reduce several risks.

Firstly, and most significantly considering Omicron, is Covid outbreaks. You need to emphasise that employees must follow any safety measures in place at the venue. Secondly, misconduct – festive events are technically a workplace activity, meaning instances of misconduct will result in disciplinary action. Thirdly, unauthorised absences. It should be made clear that these will be dealt with under your formal disciplinary procedure. 

We recommend that employers communicate 10 company guidelines to all staff ahead of their Christmas party. The same will apply to other work parties and social gatherings within companies and departments into the new year.

  1. Covid-19 is very much an issue. Everyone must therefore follow any instructions in place at the venue regarding safety measures, unless exempt. This can include a requirement to produce evidence of a negative lateral flow test result in order to gain entry into the venue. You can recap how this can be done and any other requirements you are putting in place. It must be noted that the situation could change, with new requirements and measures being implemented at short notice. Separately, it may be wise for you to insist that employees take lateral flow tests before attending regardless of the venue rules. If you want to record the results of those tests, then there are various GDPR requirements to comply with – details can be found on the ICO website.
  2. If an employee has any of the three main symptoms of Covid-19 (new continuous cough, high temperature, loss of or change to sense of taste and/or smell), they should not attend the event and should obtain a PCR test as soon as possible. 
  3. Everyone must be respectful of anyone who either cannot comply with the safety measures in place because of an exemption, or who chooses to take any additional steps in order to protect themselves and you. A failure to do so may be treated as a disciplinary matter, with any allegations of harassment being treated very seriously. You should name a person to direct any questions concerning this.
  4. Remind staff that the party is technically a work-related activity. Behaviour at the party is therefore governed by the company’s disciplinary procedure. People should not get excessively drunk, get involved in any fighting, harassment, the taking of drugs, or other similar unwanted behaviour either at the party or on their way home afterwards. Do not drink too much! Do not get involved in arguments.
  5. Nobody should attempt to become ‘too friendly’ with any work colleagues, unless it is absolutely clear that the approach is welcomed. Explain the company will take any allegations of harassment very seriously and will deal with them as disciplinary issues.
  6. Remind colleagues in supervisory or management posts that they are in positions of trust and that their behaviour should set a good example to other colleagues. Reiterate that all employees represent the company.
  7. Remind employees that alcohol remains in the system for a long time. If they are due to drive or to operate machinery the following morning, they will be expected to moderate their drinking at the party to take this into consideration. They must ensure that, from both legal and health and safety viewpoints, they are fit to work.
  8. People must not attempt to drive home if they are over the legal alcohol limit – take a taxi instead. Explain any arrangements you have made – for example, with a local taxi firm, including their contact details, availability from what time, and who will bear the cost of this.
  9. State the date and time that all employees are expected to be back at work by, unless they have requested, and have been granted, annual leave in accordance with the company’s standard procedure. Any resulting unauthorised absences will be dealt with under the formal disciplinary procedure. Remind staff to bear this in mind when deciding how much to drink! Explain this with a reminder that everyone still has work deadlines to meet and customers to serve on the ‘morning after’.
  10. Any unacceptable behaviour will be dealt with, if necessary, under the formal disciplinary procedure, which could in extreme cases result in dismissal.

Most of the above problems can easily be avoided if all employees follow the guidelines, exercise restraint and only drink in moderation. Encouraging everyone to play their part in this will ensure that the party is memorable for all the right reasons.

James Tamm is director of legal services at WorkNest Law