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The Office Christmas Party: An Employer’s Nightmare?

The Christmas party should be a great event at which colleagues can let their hair down and get together for a night of eating, drinking, singing and dancing that would rival David Brent himself.

However, what happens if somebody goes too far? What is the employer’s liability in respect of a Christmas party faux pas? What can be done to avoid any unwanted claims landing on your desk over the Christmas period?

Despite being out of office hours and usually not on office premises, the office Christmas party is seen as an extension of work by the Employment Tribunal and therefore, normal working behaviour should be adhered to.

Most Christmas parties usually go off without a hitch; however, it is not unusual to see claims lodged in the Employment Tribunal in the months following Christmas:

  • Harassment

The types of harassment which are dealt with by the Equality Act include sexual harassment, the definition being conduct which has the ‘purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the complainant or violating the complainant’s dignity’.

As the Christmas party is seen as still being part of the workplace, an employer can be held liable for the acts of its employees and should therefore ensure that an anti-harassment policy is in place. On a more practical level, the staff should be casually reminded before the party to have a good time, but not to get too carried away and drink sensibly.

  • Discrimination

It is important to involve all employees at such events to avoid discrimination. Employers must remember that not everyone drinks alcohol and this should be catered for. At the same time, not every employee is Christian and therefore employers should take care not to exclude employees of different religions from the festive activities. The venue that is chosen should also provide good access so not to exclude disabled employees. Also, remember to invite any employees that are on maternity leave.

  • Fighting

The most frequent issue that falls into the laps of the Employment Tribunals in relation to Christmas parties is that of employees fighting. If this unfortunate scenario were to arise then employers are afforded some protection insofar as the recent case law has confirmed that employees can be fairly dismissed for fighting at the Christmas party (Gimson v Display By Design Ltd (1900336/2012)). In this case, it was held that an employee was who punched another member of staff on the walk home from the Christmas party following a disagreement was fairly dismissed.

It was found that the incident was sufficiently closely connected to work that to be classed as being in the course of employment.

Similarly, another claim for unfair dismissal was Bhara v Ikea Ltd (ET/1311146/10) . In this case, two employees entered into battle outside the venue for the Christmas party. Both parties played down as a “play fight” and “mates just having a laugh”. However, the employer dismissed on the grounds that the acts had “a damaging effect on the company brand and therefore brought the company into disrepute”. The Tribunal found that the employer was entitled to dismiss regardless of the fact that there was no ‘bad blood’ between the members of staff involved. With this in mind it is important to remind staff to enjoy themselves but to maintain acceptable standards of conduct that are expected within the office environment.

Finally… Merry Christmas!

It is important to remember that these are merely potential issues that could arise and a few suggestions to help the event run smoothly. It is a time for festive cheer and the office Christmas party is to be enjoyed by all and this should not be forgotten!

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Tom Moyes

Employment Law
0113 227 9238
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Tom Moyes Blacks Solicitors LLP