A Christmas party is a chance for staff to relax and enjoy each other's company. It's also a wonderful opportunity for employees to celebrate their achievements over the last year and for you to thank them for all their hard work. However, it's important to take care to ensure they don't expose your business to breaches of employment or health and safety law.
Make sure you remind your staff that the party is a work event and the usual conduct requirements (such as workplace equal treatment and anti-harassment policies) apply. Christmas parties are likely to be viewed as taking place ‘in the course of employment', so employers can be held vicariously liable for the actions of their employees.
Here are some of the steps you should take to make sure the event goes smoothly:
- Carry out a risk assessment of the venue you've chosen for the party. Make sure it does not pose any health and safety problems and that it won't be difficult for employees with disabilities to access;
- If employees' partners are invited to the party, invitations should not discriminate as to who is included;
- If food is being provided, make sure you cater to all employees' dietary requirements as far as possible. This includes employees who are vegetarian or vegan, those of different religions and those with specific food allergies;
- Consider how much alcohol (if any) you should provide provided free of charge. Make sure soft drinks are available as well. Remind your employees that they have a duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety and that of anyone who may be affected by their actions of omissions;
- If the party includes entertainment, take the time to ensure this will not contain material likely to cause anyone offence;
- Consider hiring transport so that employees can get home safely, or providing taxis;
- Make sure employees understand the difference between 'banter' and behaviour that could be considered insulting or demeaning. You may wish to choose an appropriate number of senior staff who can act as general overseers to ensure the event is trouble free, and to whom staff know they can report any problems. They will then be able to act quickly if any inappropriate behaviour does occur. If such behaviour occurs and an employee makes an official complaint about it, you must deal with this formally under the appropriate procedures;
- Employees who are expected to attend work the next day should be aware that if they are absence because of over-indulgence, this is likely to be regarded as a disciplinary rather than a medical matter; and
- Employees should be in no doubt that any illegal acts will not be tolerated.
In order to limit the possibility of a vicarious liability claim, employers may wish to consider organising an event with a clear finishing time – for example a meal in a restaurant – so that employees who wish to carry on celebrating afterwards do so at a venue of their own choosing. Employers should also bear in mind a recent Court of Appeal ruling (overturning an earlier decision of the High Court) in which a man who suffered a serious brain injury after being punched by a colleague, while they were drinking at a hotel some time after the firm's Christmas party had finished, won compensation. In this particular case, the man's colleague was a director and shareholder of the employer company and the way he 'chose to exert his authority, indeed his dominance as the only real decision-maker' was critical to the decision that the employer was vicariously liable.