Legal

The risks of throwing an office summer party and how to avoid them

21 Aug 2019 By Sarah West

Sarah West outlines some key pointers to help employers ensure their celebrations don’t leave them in legal hot water

Amid recent soaring temperatures and heightened focus on social wellbeing in the workplace, noticeably more employers are hosting summer parties, often as a more inclusive alternative (or addition) to the Christmas party.

Summer offers a great opportunity to bring employees together in a relaxed, social setting to toast the success of the year so far. That said, bad weather is not the only threat to the party. Much like the unpredictability of the British weather, increased sun and free-flowing alcohol can lead to employees (and management) behaving badly.

What are the risks to employees?

Employees can be quick to forget that they remain bound by the obligations in their employment contract during work events. The summer party should be considered as an extension of the workplace, and the usual high standard of conduct is expected. Workplace policies will also still apply, and employers should remind employees of this before the party.

The lines of professional conduct are too often blurred in social settings, and employees could find themselves facing disciplinary action, which could ultimately lead to dismissal. Employment tribunals have seen cases involving inappropriate behaviour, harassment and damage to company property that has taken place during work parties.

What are the risks to employers?

Employers can be held vicariously liable for the wrongful acts of employees committed ‘in the course of employment’. These boundaries have been stretched over recent years, and a party organised and paid for by the employer is likely to invite the risk of vicarious liability, regardless of its location.

Businesses could face a constructive dismissal claim if a rogue manager drinks too much and decides to tell his team what he really thinks of them or promises a pay rise that is forgotten about the next morning. Generally, employers and management should try to limit discussion about commercially sensitive topics.

Let’s not forget about the after party. Employers are not relieved of risk just because the workforce has left the event. In 2018, the Court of Appeal found an employer liable for its managing director’s actions in drunkenly assaulting an employee during impromptu drinks at a hotel bar, post-Christmas party. This risk is harder to control, and there will be several factors that affect liability, but employers should keep a watchful eye on any intoxicated employees at closing time.

How can employers protect themselves, and their employees?

Most parties will pass without incident, and cases in the employment tribunals arising out of work events are the exception, rather than the rule. However, there are ways employers can mitigate the risk of HR nightmares ahead of time. These include:

  • inviting all staff, including those on maternity leave or absent for other reasons, so that the event is fully inclusive and reaches a wider number of employees;
  • checking that the relevant workplace policies are up to date and circulate them to employees, reminding them of their obligations and that they remain bound by their terms and conditions of employment at the event;
  • introducing a social events policy (for more risk-averse employers). Social media and privacy policies will also be particularly relevant if employees are likely to be posting on social media;
  • controlling the amount of alcohol available and providing plenty of food and soft drinks;
  • keeping HR on hand and ensuring you have first aid-trained employees;
  • reminding management to avoid discussing sensitive topics, such as pay or bonuses, or office gossip; and
  • considering combining the event with a CSR cause, such as fundraising for a chosen charity. This can create a positive environment and ensure that local initiatives are supported, and can mean that employees are less likely to misbehave, given the nature of the event.

Sarah West is a trainee employment solicitor at Shulmans

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