Although Christmas parties are fundamentally a social and fun occasion, they are also official company-organised events, an extension of the working environment. In other words, if employees behave in an inappropriate, aggressive or dangerous manner while at the party, their employer may be responsible for their actions.
Alcohol consumption, coupled with a relaxed social atmosphere, can foster situations which may not occur daily in the office and employers need to be ready for them. For example, employees may start to act in ways that seem out of character, ranging from aggressive behaviour to more serious cases of discrimination and harassment. Legally, an employer has a duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees. By extension, they can be liable for actions committed by employees in the course of their employment if they cannot demonstrate they took “reasonable steps” to prevent it. To this end, companies should have policies in place that set out the type of behaviour expected from employees and what will be considered unacceptable. If an employee claims they are being harassed by a colleague, the company is expected to take swift action to deal with it, in line with their policy.
An employee who is harassed may be able to seek compensation from their employer if it can be shown that the employer took no steps to try to prevent this behaviour. This is known as “vicarious liability” and also extends to work-related social gatherings. The rise of the “MeToo” movement, which originated in October 2017 when Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of multiple counts of sexual misconduct, has seen a significant number of women across the globe come forward claiming to have been sexually harassed within a professional environment. If this were to occur at a Christmas party, and was not properly managed or responded to by the employer, it could face discrimination claims through vicarious liability. This can result in an unlimited fine from a tribunal and potentially impact upon the overall reputation of the company.
A work Christmas party should be a time of joy and celebration which, if managed correctly, should have a positive impact on the business as a whole. Although Christmas parties are usually a positive way of motivating a workforce and a fun occasion for everyone involved, companies must ensure that their workers maintain certain standards of behaviour. For this to be the case, a significant amount of thought and planning is required and decision makers should be alert to the various pitfalls ahead of time.