As the Christmas period rapidly approaches once again, Stuart Chamberlain suggests some tips to ensure a smooth and problem-free Christmas party for staff.

It’s that time of year again when businesses offer their employees a little holiday cheer, although such festivities may recently have fallen victim to the economic recession. Nevertheless, an employer may wish to thank its employees for their efforts during the year and hold a Christmas party. But this is not without its legal liabilities. The following tips may help an employer that does wish to hold such a party to avoid these liabilities.

A party policy

All organisations should have one. The policy should set out the boundaries of acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour and the penalties for transgression. This should remove any misconceptions and misunderstandings among the staff.

Invitations to the party

The Christmas party should not be compulsory — in any case, people may not be able to attend because they may have other responsibilities on the day or on religious grounds.

Invitations do not automatically have to include partners, but remember that if invitations are extended to them, do not assume that they will be of the opposite sex. There must be no discrimination of the protected characteristic of sexual orientation. It should also be made clear whether or not the employer is paying for partners at the party.

Alcohol and food

If an employer serves alcohol at a party then it is implicitly responsible for the guests’ consumption. Further, the employer may be vicariously liable for any damage or injury caused by drunken guests. Always limit the amount of free alcohol that is available. In one legal case, employees got drunk at a party and were involved in brawl. They successfully argued that the subsequent dismissals were unfair: the employer had provided a free bar and therefore condoned their behaviour. If alcohol is on tap ensure that soft drinks (including plenty of water) are also provided.

Offer a variety of food that everyone can enjoy. It would be wise to ask the staff before the party if they have any special dietary requirements.

Problems at the party

Apart from the over-consumption of alcohol, the Christmas party can result in some harassment — sexual and other forms. Remind the staff of the company policy and the penalties (see above) before the event.

Managers should certainly avoid conversations about performance, promotion or pay. There are plenty of reported cases of such offers being made during party occasions, with the manager conveniently forgetting the next day. The employee then resigns in frustration at his or her hopes being disappointed and successfully claims constructive dismissal at the tribunal.

If a problem arises, never discipline any employee at the party itself, although he or she could of course be sent home. Deal with the incident when all are back in the office. Deal with any complaints seriously, following the usual disciplinary procedures. The fact that the complaint took place at a party is no defence for unacceptable behaviour by staff that could breach UK equality legislation.

Getting home

Give some thought as to how employees will get home after the party; particularly as public transport may have stopped by the time the party finishes. In addition to issuing warnings about drinking and driving, the employer may wish to provide taxis or coaches to get staff home. At the very least they should alert employees to the need to pre-book a taxi and provide the appropriate telephone numbers.

The morning after

There are a number of potential problems here. Employees should have been made aware before the party of the consequences of turning up late for work (or even of being absent) after a hard night. Of course, the employer may generously decide there are none!

Banter at the party can easily continue into the following week, with employees sharing recollections and pictures of what took place with colleagues through social media. The company’s policy should state clearly the dangers of such activity as well as the potential for either a claim of harassment or disciplinary action against the employees involved.

Last reviewed 10 December 2013