Employment law advice for office Christmas parties
“Employers are vicariously liable for the actions of their employees carried out in the course of their employment, even at the office Christmas party,” said Lucy. “In order to ensure that everyone is on the same page, it’s best practice to send an email beforehand, reminding employees of the standards of behaviour required.”
Lucy pointed out that some employers may worry that they will be seen as a bit of a Grinch if they send serious emails about a fun event, but there is a way to strike a balance and it is best practice to do so in order to hopefully prevent issues before they arise.
“The email can say that the management team is looking forward to a festive night out and describe what’s in store, then remind team members of the standard of conduct expected of them. This is in everyone’s best interests, as some employees may not realise that they need to follow certain policies when they’re at a work event outside of the workplace.”
There are other ways that employers can prevent adverse situations at an office Christmas party, such as not supplying too much free alcohol.
“Common examples of office Christmas parties that have taken a turn for the worse usually involve unlimited alcohol and free bars,” explained Lucy. “Though this is very generous, it can also encourage or at least facilitate bad behaviour. Instead, it is potentially better to only offer one or two drinks or tokens to each employee. If they’d like additional drinks following the use of these tokens, they can then pay for them personally.”
This advice is not to be taken lightly, as Lucy pointed out that there have been several Tribunal cases of aggressive behaviour and sexual harassment at office parties in recent years.
“There have also been cases of bosses promising bonuses and pay rises at a Christmas party, only to then go back on their word in January. This can cause serious issues, as it reduces employee satisfaction, trust and loyalty. In certain circumstances it could expose employers to the risk of a constructive unfair dismissal claim.”
It’s also crucial that employers take note of the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2020) Act 2023 which is due to come into force on 1 January 2024. This legislation introduces a new duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of their employees. In addition, it gives employment tribunals the power to increase compensation by up to 25% if the employer is found to have breached this duty following a successful claim by an employee for sexual harassment. When considering this duty, Tribunals are likely to expect employers to have clear and comprehensive policies which cover sexual harassment scenarios occurring both in the workplace and at work-related events and a robust grievance/complaints system by which employees can raise any such issues.
“Employers are liable for their staff anywhere that a work event is taking place, not just in the workplace itself,” said Lucy. “Compensation awarded following successful sexual harassment claims can amount to tens of thousands of pounds and can even reach six-figure sums, so it’s in the best interests of the company both financially and ethically to do everything within their power to prevent harassment of their employees from taking place.
“Some businesses are choosing to give their employees gifts or money instead of organising an office Christmas party, especially in companies where a large majority of the employees are remote workers. However, many companies will still want to celebrate the festive season with their employees at an in-person event, in which case everyone needs to be mindful of what’s expected of them and represent the business in a positive manner from start to finish.”