Tina Chandler reports on when employees take the festive fun too far

The Christmas adverts are on the telly, lists of ‘must-have’ presents are being compiled and carols will soon accompany shoppers on their travels, but as the work Christmas party approaches, it’s important that revellers don’t take the celebrations too far and land themselves in hot water.

Tina Chandler, employment lawyer at leading UK law firm Wright Hassall warns: “Whilst no-one wants to play the Grinch, it is worth reminding employees that they still represent their organisation, even when they are enjoying a few festive beverages at the local bar or pub.

“From an employment law perspective, although the party may take place outside of the workplace and out of normal office hours, there remains the risk that an employer will be liable for the actions of its staff.

“Unfortunately for employers, there is always the potential liability for acts of discrimination or harassment by its staff, which are usually the most common issues faced during an alcohol-fuelled party. Employees can sometimes get carried away drinking, and act in a way they would never dream of when sober.

“The most likely form of harassment at a work party is sexual, but incidents of discrimination relating to race, gender or sexual orientation can also occur – I’m sure we can all imagine the unsavoury scenario.

“Having worked hard all year long, the opportunity to let your hair down can sometimes get the better of us, and for some this can mean consuming far too much alcohol and becoming emotional or aggressive. Workplace tensions that have been building up over time can come to the surface, resulting in a heated argument between colleagues.

“Such behaviour could lead to claims for potentially unlimited compensation against both the employer and the employee responsible. The time and effort required by management in dealing with any grievance and/or disciplinary issues arising from any such incident, should also not be forgotten.

“Incidents such as these are unfortunately all too common and every January, employment lawyers will be inundated with calls from clients that begin: ‘There was an unfortunate event at our Christmas party…’. To lessen the risk of being that client, employers should firstly recognise the potential for problems and take the following steps:

  • Everyone must be invited, regardless of whether they are ill or on leave – not inviting certain individuals could result in claims of discrimination;
  • When employees can bring partners, do not discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and assume all partners will be of the opposite sex;
  • Ensure that you have an equal opportunities/ anti-harassment policy in place;
  • Remind workers before the party that the same code of conduct applies, and that any instances of harassment, discrimination or violence will not be tolerated under any circumstances;
  • Tell employees to enjoy themselves and have a good time, but remind them that inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated and could result in disciplinary action;
  • If hired entertainers tell racist, sexist or offensive jokes and the employer does not fulfil its duty to protect employees from this unwanted conduct, it could be liable for harassment claims;
  • Consider limiting the bar tab. Providing limitless amounts of alcohol to employees, without monitoring who is drinking what is irresponsible, and can increase the likelihood of a serious issue occurring;
  • Consider appointing a senior, responsible employee to stay sober, monitor behaviour and step in if necessary.

Christmas gifts with a hidden agenda…
Given the inevitable gifts and invitations to other organisations’ Christmas festivities, it is important for employers to be mindful of their potential liability under the Bribery Act 2010. Failing to prevent bribery in the workplace is strict liability, and employers must show that it has ‘adequate procedures’ in place to successfully defend against such a case.

Regardless of size, all organisations should have policies in place to remind employees of what is and isn’t acceptable. Liability arises from both offering and receiving bribes. Reasonable gifts and hospitality, such as a bottle of wine or an invitation to dinner should not raise too much concern, but if employees are whisked away on a private jet, sipping champagne to meet Father Christmas in Lapland, questions may need to be asked!

Tina Chander
Tina Chander is an associate solicitor in the Employment team at leading Midlands law firm, Wright Hassall and deals with contentious and non-contentious employment law issues. Wright Hassall provides legal services including: corporate law; commercial law; litigation and dispute resolution; employment law and property law. The firm also advises on contentious probate, business immigration, debt recovery, employee incentives, information governance, professional negligence and private client matters.