Holiday Party Dos and Don’ts: How employers can avoid a morning-after headache

December 18, 2023 Reports and White Papers

There is certainly a buzz in the air as the holiday party season gets well and truly underway. For many employees this is a highlight of their working year and represents an opportunity to blow off steam and celebrate with colleagues after a long year of hard work. However, for those organising the event, it can prove a stressful evening. Most employers will already be alive to the fact that social events outside of the office can give rise to tricky workplace issues and that they will potentially be vicariously liable for the actions of employees at such events, where these fall within the remit of the ‘course of employment’. By way of reminder, in Chief Constable of Lincolnshire Police v Stubbs [1999] ICR 547 it was held that sexual harassment that occurred at social gatherings involving police officers, either immediately after work or for an organised leaving party, took place in the course of the officers' employment and the employer was vicariously liable for this behaviour.

We have outlined key practical recommendations for employers planning (and attending) social events this holiday season to minimise any morning-after regrets.

Recommendations for employers:

  • Do remind staff of accepted standards of behaviour and review your policies and procedures to ensure these are fit for purposes. Where an employee has committed an act of discrimination or harassment against a colleague, an employer may escape liability if it can show that it took all reasonable steps to prevent its employee committing a discriminatory act. Having robust policies and training on harassment and bullying as well as ensuring that staff are clear on what is unacceptable conduct will be the first step in raising such a defence. 
  • Do communicate what is expected of employees regarding lateness or absence from work following the event. Many staff will expect a degree of leniency after a work bash. If this isn’t the case, you should make staff aware of this (or consider holding an event on a Friday or Saturday evening to remove the problem of potential absences the next day). In Ardyne Scaffolding Ltd v Rennie, Mr Rennie returned to work late and worse for wear after a Christmas lunch. He was dismissed for gross misconduct, but the employer failed to follow a fair process and he succeeded with an unfair dismissal claim. 
  • Do remember that you likely employ people with a wide-ranging set of dietary requirements and that some employees may not drink alcohol. Often this is driven by religious or cultural reasons. Catering should be inclusive, with provision for all dietary requirements and non-alcoholic options available, both as a matter of good employment relations and to meet your obligations, under the Equality Act 2010, not to discriminate on the grounds or religion and belief. 
  • Do remember that the general principles of fairness and reasonableness continue to apply no matter how egregious the behaviour, and instances of misconduct will need to be dealt with consistently. In Westlake v ZSL London, the Claimant got in a fight with a colleague at the Christmas party, culminating in him smashing a wine glass over his colleague’s face. The Claimant was dismissed but his colleague given a final warning. The Tribunal found that the dismissal was unfair because of this inconsistency – both employees had committed violent conduct, and it was unclear who had started the brawl.
  • Don’t conduct conversations with your employees regarding performance, salary or career prospects whilst at the event. In Judge v Crown Leisure Limited an employee was given verbal assurances of a pay rise by a director during the Christmas party. This never materialised and the employee subsequently resigned and claimed constructive dismissal. On the facts of this case the assurances were too vague to constitute a contractual change and the claim failed. However, it’s not difficult to imagine more precise wording yielding a different result. 
  • Don’t insist that all staff attend social events or pressurise individuals into going. Social gatherings can be a daunting and nerve-racking thing for some people. Accept that not everyone will want to go to the party. Some employees may have family commitments or religious objections.

Whilst it’s not possible to guarantee any work event will go smoothly, we hope that implementing some of these recommendations will mitigate your risk this festive season. Rest assured that if your holiday party does throw up some tricky issues, our Employment team is on standby to help you navigate these.

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