Employers shy away from boozy Christmas parties amid fears of negative fallout

Lunchtime events, team-building experiences and ‘sober chaperones’ favoured over traditional get-togethers as party season looms

Employers are taking an increasingly conservative approach to the Christmas party season, experts have said, as fear over the reputational and legal fallout from poor behaviour at festive get-togethers causes them to scale back their plans or take measures to safeguard staff.

Initiatives such as chaperones, alcohol-free events and strict guidelines on conduct are increasingly in force as employers and their HR departments respond to the fallout from notable party-related legal cases and a growing intolerance for potentially offensive or discriminatory conduct. 

The Financial Times reported last week that accountancy giant BDO had introduced a ‘sober chaperone’ policy for its Christmas parties, with each department asked to nominate two individuals who would refrain from over-indulging to ensure employees behaved responsibly in an ‘emergency situation’ and got home safely at the end of the night. 

The paper said other large businesses had encouraged employees to organise lunchtime events or were concentrating on team-building ‘experiences’ that would avoid over-consumption of alcohol. KPMG was reported to have issued new guidelines about employee conduct before the party season.

“A lot of employers are introducing things like this for certain people who are most vulnerable. It’s not just ensuring no one consumes too much alcohol, but about [safeguarding] people who have a disability or those who could be sensitive to what people might say to them in a more alcohol-inflamed situation,” said Professor Sir Cary Cooper, president of the CIPD and founder of workplace wellbeing organisation Robertson Cooper. “Employers worry what happens when people have too much to drink and say and do inappropriate things, which is a real danger.”

Cate Murden, founder of wellbeing and performance company Push, said she was seeing a growing demand for a less raucous kind of Christmas event. “We’re having a lot more conversations with clients about giving them more options, including events with non-alcoholic drinks. We’re finding a real demand for this as employers want wellbeing over and above alcohol-based events,” she said.

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Recent surveys have also suggested a growing number of employers are emphasising experience-based events such as go-karting or indoor golf, or prefer to invest in smaller celebrations at different times of year rather than encourage larger parties that only offer a single opportunity to bring people together.

They are also mindful of notable cases that have highlighted the risks involved in festive events. In 2016, the High Court ruled that a recruitment company was liable for the actions of its managing director, who punched an employee at a party and left him brain damaged. In a separate case, an animal technician at Cancer Research UK suffered "devastating" back injuries in 2012 after a colleague lifted her up and dropped her on a Christmas party dancefloor, though the employer was not held liable for her injuries.

By taking a sensible risk management approach, office parties can go without significant incidents or the need for disciplinary actions, said Sarah Pickup, senior lecturer in health and safety at the University of Sunderland. 

“Any preventative and protective measures such as the provision of sober companions during social events, or reminding staff of their obligations and code of conduct, are without doubt a positive step for managing issues relating to alcohol and corporate Christmas party events.

“With any sensible risk management approach, if there are greater foreseeable risks, such as organisations or industries with concerns around bullying and sexual harassment, the preventative and protective measures would inherently need to be greater and more comprehensive.” 

But the best was to avoid inappropriate behaviour over the festive period, Cooper said, remained communication. “To make events alcohol-free is imposing restrictions and treating people like children. The best way to do it is to tell people to please not over consume. We all know that having rough guidelines for employees up front might be helpful.”