Putting the HR in Christmas parties

As offices are adorned with tinsel and celebrations begin, Paul Reeves, Leanne Raven and Abigail Edwards explore the risks that come with the festive season

Credit: Gary Burchell/10'000 Hours/Getty Images

A Christmas party organised by an employer – even if away from the office – is likely to be viewed as an extension of the workplace. This means any misconduct at work Christmas parties will be considered to be 'in the course of employment' and can lead to a flurry of grievances, disciplinaries and even discrimination or harassment claims for which the employer can be held vicariously liable. 

Employers must ensure they clearly set out their expectations regarding appropriate behaviour, while simultaneously avoiding the label of the Christmas grinch. A gentle reminder that any misconduct may result in disciplinary action, or potentially dismissal depending on the severity of the conduct, may focus employees' minds.

Alcohol and inclusivity

Appointing a ‘sober champion’ (preferably someone senior who remains sober all night) to oversee the party can help to reduce the risk of HR issues arising. The sober champion can try to ensure any potential misbehaviour is spotted and dealt with promptly and effectively before things escalate. 

Alcohol is often a focal point of Christmas parties, which can lead to certain groups feeling excluded. It is vital that employers make the effort to include everyone, whether they are religious, pregnant, or simply don't drink, to create a diverse and inclusive environment.  

The same can be said for the choice of venue, where businesses should ensure it is accessible to all, including those with physical disabilities, as well as the menu options, which should cater for different dietary restrictions. Also don't forget to invite employees absent from the office; for example, those on sick leave, maternity leave or any form of parental leave.

Planning the event with inclusivity in mind will help to avoid the unwanted gifts of grievances or discrimination claims from employees who may otherwise feel sidelined.

Discrimination and harassment claims

A key risk for employers during Christmas party season is the possibility of discrimination and harassment claims. These can stem from 'harmless banter' and unprofessional conduct, which is often amplified when alcohol and mistletoe are thrown into the mix. Employers must ensure they deal with any complaints appropriately, maintaining strict procedures, taking allegations seriously and carrying out thorough investigations when required. Failure to address claims can have negative consequences for businesses, both in the form of financial penalties and reputational damage. 

Employers may be mulling over the difficult balancing act that the festive season poses. They want to allow employees to let their hair down and reward them for their hard work – there can be lots of positives stemming from work socials in terms of team bonding and enhanced professional relationships. However, they need to keep their obligations at the forefront of their minds this Christmas, so that they can start the new year on a positive note rather than a sack full of employment-related claims.

Paul Reeves is a partner and head of employment, Leanne Raven is a senior knowledge lawyer and Abigail Edwards is a solicitor apprentice at Stephenson Harwood