Hannah Parsons, solicitor at DAS Law, has the following advice to ensure that your office party does not result in writs and recriminations.
No matter where your office party takes place, the location should always be considered an extension of the workplace, and the law in relation to employment matters usually remains the same. An employer still has a duty of care to employees, who should be reminded that they are representing the business and are still expected to act accordingly.
An employer still has a duty of care to employees, who should be reminded that they are representing the business and are still expected to act accordingly
As we all know, however, this doesn’t always happen and an employer may find themselves the subject of a personal injury or sexual harassment claim, and an employee may find themselves in the queue at the digital job centre come January.
Do the normal rules of gross misconduct apply at a Christmas party?
Yes they do. The work Christmas party should be considered to be an extension of the workplace, so the same rules will apply. Generally speaking, an act of gross misconduct is potentially serious enough to fundamentally breach the contract between employer and employee, and justify summary dismissal.
In a normal working environment, employees would be aware that punching Tom from accounts is a gross misconduct offence. At an office party however, the professional line is too often blurred, usually fuelled by alcohol which might even have been provided by the employer.
Common examples of Christmas party gross misconduct are serious subordination, harassment, and damage to company property. This list is not exhaustive and if there is an incident which is sufficiently closely connected to work, and will likely impact on the working situation, then it is likely that the employer will be able to start a disciplinary investigation regarding the matter.
Can you get in trouble for having a consensual ‘fling’ with a colleague at the office Christmas party?
The Christmas party cliché brought to life: with alcohol flowing and mistletoe aplenty, an employee may find themselves in a compromising position with a colleague. Although all employees are entitled to a private life, the Christmas party is still an extension of the workplace and employees should act appropriately.
Employees should be reminded that if their behaviour would be considered inappropriate in the manager’s office then it will likely be inappropriate at the Christmas party.
Romantic or sexual advances made by one member of staff may be unreciprocated by the other, so be aware that unwanted advances or comments could amount to sexual harassment. As well as disciplinary implications, or in the most extreme cases even criminal sanctions for the perpetrator, this could also result in a claim against the employer who may be vicariously liable for their actions.
If a more serious relationship grows from a Christmas party encounter then the employer’s policy may require the employees to disclose this to them. This is good HR practice, and avoids situations – such as an employee being managed by their partner – that could cause a conflict of interest or a perception of bias, which could in turn be detrimental to the business.
If you suffer an injury as a result of the free alcohol provided by your employer, can you take action against them?
If an employee suffers a fall or accident at the Christmas party, there could be implications for the employer if it was foreseeable that, due to the amount of alcohol available, an accident was likely to happen.
Although an employee is ultimately responsible for their own actions and the alcohol that they consume, an employer could try to temper the likelihood of any personal injury occurring by making sure that employees are provided with food, limited amounts of alcohol, and unlimited non-alcoholic alternatives to try and prevent over indulgence.
The dos and don’ts
Generally, Christmas parties should be an opportunity for employees to let their hair down and relax in a more social setting. It should not be forgotten, however, that what happens at the Christmas party does not always stay at the Christmas party.
Dos for employers
Here’s what you can do if you are throwing a Christmas party for your employees:
- Invite all employees to the party even if absent through sickness, maternity or paternity leave;
- Remind employees of the company’s expectations and be clear on what will be considered inappropriate behaviour;
- Control the amount of free alcohol and make sure food and non-alcoholic drinks are provided;
- Be prepared to deal with any inappropriate behaviour in line with company policy and be consistent in how you apply the policy;
- Avoid discussions about career prospects or remuneration with employees; and
- Consider nominating a member of management to refrain from alcohol at the event in order to deal with any emergencies or incidents that arise.
Don’ts for employees
Here is what not to do if you are attending an office Christmas party:
- Forget you are effectively still ‘at work’, and not conduct yourself accordingly;
- Drink too much so that you don’t know what you are doing;
- Get involved in office gossip or office ‘banter’ which could be offensive;
- Try to discuss why you should have a pay rise with your manager;
- Make any unwelcome advances, sexual or otherwise;
- Become violent or aggressive; and
- Forget to enjoy the event!