The annual work Christmas party can be a great opportunity to bring everyone together and finish the year on a high, but for employers, there's potential for a hangover that lasts far beyond the next morning.

While you will no doubt want employees to let their hair down and enjoy themselves, bringing together a large group of colleagues outside of the usual work environment can be a recipe for disaster. Add alcohol into the mix, and it’s easy for lowered inhibitions to lead to inappropriate behaviour, from employees getting a little too friendly to some seeing it as an opportunity to air frustrations that they have sat on all year.

And it’s not only the event itself that can be a catalyst for employment law issues; there’s also scope for missteps in the planning stages, with numerous pitfalls for employers to sidestep.

What employers often don't realise is that even if the event is held off site outside of working hours, the conduct of employees at the Christmas party is generally considered, from a legal standpoint, to be done "in the course of employment", with you the employer vicariously liable.

The prospect of being held accountable for whatever your employees get up to after a few drinks can be an unnerving; you can, however, defend a claim provided you are able to prove that you took reasonable steps to prevent it occurring. Of course, prevention is always better than cure.

With all of this in mind, forethought and proper planning is essential. Here are eight elements of your Christmas party to consider ahead of time and the risks to be alert to.

1. Invite everyone, with no expectations

  • To prevent any suggestion of discrimination, be sure to send an invite to all members of staff. This includes those on maternity/paternity leave as well as those on sick leave, depending of course on the nature of the person’s illness.
  • Don’t force or put pressure on anyone to attend. If the party will take place outside of working hours, keep in mind that some employees may have childcare or other responsibilities and non-Christian employees may feel uncomfortable about attending.
  • If you’re planning to people’s partners, be mindful not to discriminate against anyone based on sexual orientation.

2. Consider how to better accommodate people

When you’re wrapped up in planning a fully festive event complete with all the trimmings and a hefty supply of alcohol, it’s easy to forget that not everyone celebrates Christmas, drinks or is able to stay out late.

Think about ways of celebrating that are perhaps more inclusive, allowing more people to attend and enjoy themselves. Simple adjustments such as switching out an evening event for a lunchtime meal, providing plenty of alcohol-free options or framing the event as an end-of-year celebration (less heavy on the tinsel) may better suit everyone and prevent anyone from feeling excluded.

3. Keep it clean and cater to everyone

Give careful consideration to where the event will be held, what food and drink will be available and what entertainment will be provided.

Consider your workers’ needs. When deciding on a venue, ask yourself:

  • Can it cater to any dietary requirements?
  • Is it suitable for under 18s?
  • Does it have wheelchair access?

Take time to vet the evening’s entertainment beforehand to ensure it’s appropriate. If you decide to hire a comedian, for example, check that the jokes don’t venture too close to the knuckle or single anyone out. Not only can misjudged or offensive content cause the atmosphere to nose dive fast, but you may also be held legally liable for material that is racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise pokes fun at a protected characteristic. Brief entertainers prior to the event to reduce the risk of things going unexpectedly off-piste.

4. Make your position clear

If you don’t have a specific policy in place regarding employee behaviour at work events, it’s a good idea to circulate a memo to all staff in advance. 

Your Christmas party memo should:

  • Clearly lay down what is expected of employees;
  • Explain that instances of misconduct will result in disciplinary action; and
  • Draw employees’ attention to other relevant policies, including bullying and harassment and social media.

5. Keep a close eye on alcohol consumption

It’s important to ensure alcohol consumption doesn’t get out of control. Consider:

  • Restricting the number of free alcoholic drinks. An open bar, while likely to go down a storm, can send the wrong message to employees.
  • Asking management to go easy. Line managers can play an important role in setting a good example for others and keeping their team in check.
  • Remind employees of your drug and alcohol policy. Make it clear to staff prior to the event that drunk or disorderly behaviour will not be tolerated and may lead to disciplinary action. In some cases, alcohol-fuelled behaviour may be treated as a gross misconduct offence, which may result in dismissal without notice.

Remember that some of your workers may be under the legal drinking age and others may not drink, so make sure there is plenty of water and soft drinks available.

6. Keep a firm grasp on potential disciplinary situations

Christmas parties can be a catalyst for Employment Tribunal claims. With the drinks flowing, the boundaries between people’s professional and personal lives often become blurred, which can give rise to confrontations, discriminatory remarks, risqué jokes, and inappropriate sexual advances.

Again, set our your stall ahead of time by reminding employees of what is and isn’t acceptable conduct and how misconduct will be dealt with. At the event, be aware of potential disciplinary situations emerging so that you can hopefully avert issues before they arise.

Don’t discipline any employees at the actual event. If necessary, send them home and take the relevant steps at the first opportunity when back in the workplace.

7. Consider how employees will get to and from the event

Ask all employees to make travel arrangements ahead of the event. Remind them to arrange for someone to pick them up afterwards, or consider providing taxis to ensure staff aren’t stranded and get home safely.

Remember, police ramp up their surveillance in the lead up to Christmas, so for this reason and in the interest of safety, enforce a strict no drinking and driving policy. Keep in mind that overdoing it may mean they are still under the influence the next morning, so remind employees to take it easy, as they will need to be able to turn up to work the following day without putting themselves at risk.

If an employee is disqualified from driving, you will need to consider how this will affect their ability to carry out their role before taking action. If an employee is not required to drive for work purposes and can get to and from work by other means, there would be no cause for dismissal. If driving is a significant element of their role, don’t rush to dismissal; consider whether it would be possible for them to be deployed elsewhere or use alternative transport for the duration of the ban.

8. Curb talk about pay

It’s never wise to engage in conversations about salary or promotions at work events – leave any discussions of this nature for when you’re back on site. The last thing you want is to make promises you can’t keep, or spark resentment between colleagues.

Professional support through your festive people problems

If you require pragmatic guidance on any of the HR-related aspects of your Christmas party planning – including help managing any subsequent fallout – our highly-qualified HR and Employment Law Advisers can offer valuable advice and clarification. We can also help to ensure that your policies and procedures are legally-compliant and offer robust protection your organisation, or expertly draft a best-practice Employee Handbook containing these important documents if you don’t already have one in place.

To talk through your specific challenges and enquire about our fixed-fee service, call 0345 226 8393.

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