• Christmas parties with no HR hangover…

    After a few dismal years of Zoom quizzes, the corporate Christmas party makes a welcome return for 2022 (rail strikes permitting) giving employers the opportunity to reward staff with a fun, sociable evening.

    At the same time however, office Christmas parties can be a recipe for HR headaches and possible Tribunal claims. Employees feel encouraged to “be themselves” – sometimes to the detriment of others – and when alcohol is added to the mix it can be toxic. Employment lawyers are unfortunately all too familiar with tales of “the morning after” – from racist abuse and sexual harassment to actual physical assault.  

    So how do you avoid your party turning into The Nightmare before Christmas?

    Every company has its own particular culture for celebratory events, but if office parties have been an issue in the past – like the company that found itself banned from every venue in a fifty mile radius –  it might be time to consider an afternoon event or weekend daytime event where a shared activity, rather than drinking, can be the focus. You could find that many of your staff, particularly those with caring responsibilities, would prefer it.

    But whatever you decide to provide for staff, it’s a good idea to send out a memo in advance reminding them that although not technically “at work” they should still consider themselves bound by company policies on discrimination, harassment etc, and that they should be careful not to let their behaviour damage the company’s reputation. It may be ignored, but at least you have laid down a marker that shows you are aware of the issue and have made an effort to prevent it. That can make a real difference in Court or Tribunal cases.  

    Even more important, perhaps, than trying to avoid problems is knowing how to deal with them if they arise.

    I’m often asked about whether employers are responsible for problems that happen outside the work place. The answer is increasingly “yes.” You can be held vicariously liable, particularly if the event has been organised and paid for by the company. You should therefore take instant and firm action against employees who transgress either against colleagues or other members of the public, even if that means, after a full investigation, that the employee is dismissed for gross misconduct. In Cordiner v Virgin Media Ltd (2004) for example,a female employee sexually and racially harassed a male colleague at the Christmas do. Her company dismissed her and although she made a claim of unfair dismissal, the Tribunal upheld that decision.

    It becomes slightly less clear if employees have arranged their own event without employer involvement, or if their bad behaviour occurs once outside the venue, but you should still consider taking disciplinary action, if appropriate. In the case of Gimson V Display by Design Ltd (2012) Mr Gimson hit a colleague in the face whilst walking home from the company Christmas party and was dismissed. His unfair dismissal claim was rejected by the Tribunal, who ruled that the assault was indeed connected to his employment.

    In the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment (2011) again in the aftermath of a Christmas party and during a private drinking session, a company director punched manager Clive Bellman and caused him serious brain injuries.  Mr Bellman sued the company for vicarious liability and ultimately succeeded at appeal, as it was determined that the dispute was connected to the employment.

    Finally, what if you are the aggrieved employee who has been subjected to aggressive or sexual behaviour? Make sure you raise your concerns with the appropriate senior staff as soon as you can, and follow company procedures in raising a grievance. You should expect your concerns to be taken seriously, but don’t jump the gun by resigning and claiming constructive dismissal. Tribunals prefer claimants who have followed appropriate processes and use the courts as a last resort. The claim of Livesey v. Parker Merchanting Ltd (2004) concerning a woman who was sexually harassed by a colleague in a taxi home after a Christmas party, failed at Tribunal because she delayed in raising concerns with her employers.

    With homeworking ever on the increase a Christmas get together is a valuable way to bond employees and encourage a sense of community. Just remember to have firm policies in place against harassment and discrimination and to take decisive action if the celebrations get out of hand.

    Employment law isn’t just for Christmas. For expert advice all year round just get in touch on 0203 858 9765 or email zoe@mulberryssolicitors.com.  Mulberry’s has offices in Brighton and London.

    This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.

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