Love them or hate them, the office Christmas party remains a key aspect of most people’s employment.  Ranging from an informal get together in the local pub to a full-scale party with entertainment, food and alcohol, many employees take this annual event as an opportunity to relax and unwind.  However, it is not uncommon for some employees to take things too far.

Many employees are unaware that social events, such as the office Christmas party, are classed as an extension of their employment, irrespective of whether the event was held during working hours, which means that the employer could finds itself vicariously liable for any acts of negligence or discrimination perpetrated by its employees during the event.

However, under the Equality Act 2010, there is a defence if the employer can prove that it took all reasonable steps to prevent the employee from committing an unacceptable act or if it can show that particular behaviours were expressly prohibited.

In view of this, it’s advisable for employers to take a proactive approach by:

  • Drafting and communicating a policy on work related social events

This should detail expected standards of behaviour and what constitutes unacceptable behaviour with the likely disciplinary action. For example, stating that alcohol should only be consumed in moderation and detailing examples of unacceptable behaviour such as drunkenness, illegal drug taking, incidences of verbal or physical abuse and sexual harassment.

  • Observing employees during the event

It’s important that the employer nominates one of more managers to observe the behaviour of its employees/alcohol intake and communicates to all staff, prior to the event, that if they experience any problems, they should contact the appropriate manager. For example, the managers must be prepared to ask the Christmas party venue to refuse serving employees alcohol, where appropriate and to politely warn employees or even ask them to leave.  This is especially relevant if they are operating a free bar.

In summary, employers should take all reasonable steps to ensure that employees do not engage in unlawful conduct during the office Christmas party and those clear guidelines, as to what is and is not acceptable behaviour, are set out in advance.

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By Bruce Ramshaw

Principal Consultant

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