29th November 2012

Office Parties – Don’t Misbehave Under the Mistletoe

It’s that time of year again when office Christmas parties are on the horizon for many employers.  The prospect of an alcohol fueled night with colleagues may sound like great fun but it does throw up many employment law risks both for employers and employees.

A Christmas party organised by a business to reward staff for their hard work is likely to amount to an extension of the workplace.  This means that employees can still be disciplined if their conduct falls below acceptable standards (even if the party is held away from the workplace).  Likewise, employers can be liable for any discrimination or harassment which might arise.  The presence of alcohol at such events is only likely to add to the risk of such issues arising as staff let off steam at the end of another hard year. 

The wise employer will provide staff with written notification of the expected standards of behaviour, with appropriate reference to policies covering conduct, discrimination, harassment and health and safety.  If staff are expected to attend work the following day, they should be notified that any unauthorised absence could result in disciplinary action.  Employers should consider restricting the levels of free alcohol available and having designated managers remain sober in order that any unruly behavior can be addressed quickly.  The availability of non-alcoholic drinks is not only essential for staff under the age of 18 but it also prevents the risk of discrimination claims from those whose religion prevents them from consuming alcohol.  Employers should also plan the food menu carefully for the same reasons and ensure that the venue/timing is appropriate for all religions, sexes and has sufficient access for disabled persons.  A party held at a lap dancing club could contravene sex discrimination legislation.

Among the most common offences at office parties are fighting and sexual harassment.  Employers need to be aware that it is not only the actions of their own staff that they are liable for, but also the actions of any third parties.  For example, a comedian providing entertainment at the party made a series of discriminatory jokes the employer could be faced with claims.   

An employer’s duty of care to employees also throws up various other considerations.  A particular concern is the risk of staff drink driving or not getting home safely.  It is worth laying on transport or at least reminding staff not to drink and drive.  Having a list of telephone numbers for local taxis is another useful risk management tool. 

Finally, the purpose of this guidance is not to sound like a killjoy but rather to minimise the risks associated with such parties and to facilitate a good time for all!

Jack Boyle
Solicitor – Employment Law

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