The work Christmas party is often eagerly anticipated and a chance for employees to let their hair down. All too often, the combination of a relaxed atmosphere and too much alcohol brings out the worst in employees, leading to problems within the workplace.
It is important to remember that any work party or gathering can be argued to have effectively taken place at work. An employer may be vicariously liable for wrongdoing by an employee if that wrongdoing is "closely connected" with the employment. Employees can therefore argue that any unfair treatment that they have received at a Christmas party took place within the workplace, opening employers up to liability and subjecting employees to disciplinary action for the same reasons. It is therefore important for employers to prepare for the worst, to hopefully avoid issues arising.
A case heard in October 2018, by the Court of Appeal reiterated this view, in deciding that a drunken attack by the Managing Director of a small business on an employee was “in the course of employment”. In the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited, following a heated discussion about work-related issues, Mr Bellman was punched twice by the Company’s owner and Managing Director, fracturing his skull and suffering severe brain damage as a result. The key to this case was the misuse of the MD’s authority and position; the Court made clear that this case does not mean that employers become insurers for violent or other acts by their employees at the Christmas Party, but that they may do for the acts of the most senior of employees.
Employers should have policies in place that specifically deal with potential problem areas. The standard of behaviour should be clearly outlined within the policy together with the potential consequences of infringing these expectations. Reminding employees of these policies in advance of the staff party may prevent infringing behaviour from occurring in the first instance, and will assist the employer in disciplining fairly. The standard of behaviour expected should be communicated to employees and any breaches should be actioned reasonably, to avoid the following issues:
In Gimson v Display By Design Ltd, the employer was found to have fairly dismissed an employee for a brawl after the end of a Christmas party.
Other than giving the incredibly simple advice of ‘don’t do it’, ensure that employees are advised that; 1) they must arrange alternative transportation home if they are intending on drinking, and 2) if anyone drives home after they are reasonably believed to be in no fit state to do so, that they will be subjected to disciplinary action which could result in their dismissal.
If you are having the work party in the middle of the week, there will be a risk that employees will be absent the following day. Prior to the party, employers should make it clear whether an employee’s absence the next day will be treated as a disciplinary issue. An employer can make deductions from employees’ pay if they turn up for work late the morning after the company Christmas party, as long as the right to make deductions from wages for unauthorised absence is reserved in the employment contract.
Clearly, the above is only a short list of the things that can go wrong. It is important to strike the correct balance between ensuring that employees can let their hair down but also comply with their employer’s expected standards of behaviour. Advising employees of clear and consistent policies should avoid a number of issues from arising in the first place.
As a guide to other issues to avoid during the Christmas party, watch our tongue in cheek video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNYkea-NZfU
If you require further information or advice on your employment contracts or policies our Employment team on 01908 660966 or 01604 828282 or email email@example.com.