It’s known as the most wonderful time of the year and the hap-happiest season of all, and with it (for most companies) arrives the office Christmas party. The aftermath of the Christmas party can not only bring hangovers of the physical kind (or 24 hour viruses for those unlucky ones who definitely did not drink that much) but also the legal kind. These include employment-related concerns, such as harassment and conduct, and personal injury claims.
It is important employers plan sufficiently for their Christmas (and all) social events. Office Christmas parties are work events and employees should be clear on what is expected of them behaviour wise.
Gently remind employees (an email will do) in advance about expectations and policies in relation to disciplinary action, harassment, and social media, and define acceptable behaviour. Why is this important? Whilst employers may worry this could be excessive, clear guidance can prevent employers being held liable for the actions of their employee in, for example, claims for racial or sexual harassment.
‘Tis the Season to be Jolly…Hungover
Christmas parties are supposed to be celebratory events. However, employers should consider how lenient to be if employees turn up late (or not at all) for work the next day. Again, guidance on this should be issued in advance to employees making it clear that disciplinary action could be taken.
Separately, if employees do turn up for work but are still drunk from the night before this could cause health and safety concerns. It is an employer’s duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees in the workplace. This means their employees and others must be protected from anything that may cause harm. Employers should be vigilant of employees who are still drunk, as this could increase the risk of injury or health in the workplace. It is worth noting this duty of care would also apply to the Christmas party.
‘Twas The Fight Before Christmas
Whitbread Beer Company v Williams & Ors 
Three Whitbread employees
Two separate incidents
And a seminar on improving behaviour skills
Add in a free bar and you have the above three employees in an Employment Tribunal (ET) claiming unfair dismissal. The first incident involved an employee, Mr Williams, swearing (heavily) at the regional distribution manager. The second incident involved an altercation between two employees, Mr Turner and Mr Stoker, where both a drink and a punch were thrown. The ET held all three employees to be unfairly dismissed, with a relevant factor being the employer had provided the free bar. Whilst this decision was later overturned at the Employment Appeal Tribunal, it is a cautionary tale to employers to think about the repercussions of providing a free bar.
Additionally, from a personal injury perspective, an employer could be found liable for injuries caused by an employee at a Christmas party. In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment (High Court) an employee attacked another employee at spontaneous post-Christmas party drinks. Whilst the case was unsuccessful, this was due to the assault taking place at a separate venue, after the Christmas party had finished. If the assault taken place at the Christmas party, rather than after it, the defendant would most likely have been found liable.
This year, to save (any) tears, make sure you follow the above guidance.