For employers, Christmas parties provide a unique opportunity to strengthen teams, thank employees and relax. However, when one drink flows into another, an evening of cheer can quickly turn into a serious problem with far-reaching consequences, to the extent that employers can be potentially liable for their employees’ drunken actions.
What can employers do to avoid the legal hangover?
1. Planning ahead
Duty of care: an employer has a general duty of care towards its employees, as follows:
• ensuring colleagues behave well towards one another;
• ensuring the venue is accessible to all, including those with disabilities;
• ensuring people can get home safely.
Travelling home: it is important to remind staff not to drink and drive and details should be given on how people can get home after the event. Some companies arrange a minibus for transport, provide local taxi numbers and/or give details of the nearest public transport routes. It can be a good idea to make sure the party finishes before public transport stops for the day.
Non-discriminatory celebrations: employers should ensure that the celebrations are non-discriminatory in all respects. Food and drink options should take vegetarian and vegan requirements into account and non-alcoholic drinks should be provided. Employers should try to avoid clashes with other religious holiday dates such as Hanukkah and invites should include agency, fixed term and part time staff as well as those on family friendly leave.
2. Risk assessment
Having a thorough risk assessment in place for the venue is key to avoiding negligence claims. The risk assessment should include examining the venue for unstable surfaces and dangerous corners as well as having steps in place for any foreseeable injuries such as slips or falls. Obviously, it should also include an assessment with regard to those employees with disabilities.
3. Reminder of standards expected
Whether the party takes place in the office or not, it will be considered to be an extension of the workplace and employers can be vicariously liable for the events that unfold.
Therefore it is helpful, in advance of the Christmas party, to remind staff of exactly that and also remind them of the standard of behaviour that you are expecting and make it clear that excess alcohol consumption and inappropriate behaviour and unwanted sexual conduct may lead to disciplinary action being taken in the same way it would as if it took place during work hours.
In light of the #MeToo movement many employers issue a reminder of the types of behaviour which could amount to harassment in an effort to be seen to be taking “reasonable steps” to prevent incidents between colleagues.
It is also a prime opportunity to remind the workforce of all applicable company policies, relating to equal opportunities, discrimination, bullying and harassment, drug and alcohol misuse, social media and any other relevant policies.
4. Alternatives to the “traditional” party
Whilst the “dry” approach to a Christmas party may not be the best morale booster at this time of year, some companies are trying to limit alcohol consumption during the festive season by replacing the traditional parties with themed activities or team-building events. This type of approach may also be seen as more inclusive to the entire workforce, some of whom may not want their work-social event to focus on the consumption of alcohol.
Where an incident occurs and a complaint is made, employers should deal with it fairly and swiftly, regardless of whether the incident occurred at a formal work event or an after-party. Investigations should be conducted professionally and thoroughly – a failure to do so could result in additional complaints.
Where an incident involves more than one employee, steps should be taken to ensure all those involved are given a fair opportunity to present their version of events and this principle should not be overlooked in situations where you are dealing with a complainant and an alleged perpetrator. Often the rights of the alleged perpetrators are put aside and there are knee-jerk reactions before the full facts are known.
The legal responsibilities associated with them may mean that Christmas parties seem like too much of a risk. However, the good news is that the horror stories tend to arise from quite particular and often quite extreme situations. With a few simple precautions, you can make sure that your Christmas party strikes the delicate balance between entertainment and professionalism.