Christmas punch, not Christmas punch-up!

Your work Christmas party will undoubtedly soon be taking place with crackers being pulled, wine consumed and (possibly questionable) dance moves thrown. It will hopefully be a good-humoured and happy experience for all but what happens when things go wrong, for example, when colleagues brawl or discriminatory insults are made. An employer needs to be prepared to handle such difficulties if they arise.

Is the party a work or a social event?

Work-related social occasions are often considered as being an extension of work. It all depends on the actual circumstances, for example a chance meeting of employees at a pub is very unlikely to be classed as “work” but an organised event is much more likely to be.  It would be prudent to treat your Christmas party as “work”.

What potentially liability could there be for me as the employer?

An employer is usually responsible for its employees’ acts during the course of their employment. If misconduct occurs at a work-related social occasion (say, sexist comments are made by your Finance Director to your Receptionist after one too many glasses of mulled wine), the employer may well be vicariously liable for such discriminatory act. If a successful discrimination claim is brought, remember that the compensation awarded is not capped.

What can I do to minimise the risks?

  • Notify employees of the standards expected of them in advance of the event. In particular, remind them of the types of behaviour that are unacceptable, for example, no excessive drinking, no fighting and no promiscuous behaviour;
  • Draw attention to your equal opportunities and anti-bullying and harassment policies to try and minimise the risk of offensive and/or discriminatory comments being made;
  • Pre-empt the use of social media (for example, tweeting the shenanigans of the work party that could result in reputational damage for individuals and your business) by reminding employees of your social media rules;
  • Train your managers so that they can be alert to and manage situations before they get out of control;
  • Always follow up any complaints that are made, even if a formal grievance has not been submitted by an employee;
  • Anticipate the potential problem of poor attendance and lateness the following day (as many employees are likely to be nursing hangovers) by reminding employees that unauthorised absence will be treated as a disciplinary issue;
  • Remember to invite everyone to the party, including those on family leave or long-term sick, otherwise you might be accused of discriminating against certain individuals;
  • Choose a venue and entertainment that is accessible to all (including any disabled employees) and is not going to be seen as offensive (in particular, on sex or religious grounds); and finally
  • Don’t force the attendance of those who don’t wish to come. Some employees might have caring responsibilities or not want to attend as they are of a non-Christian faith.

Whilst it should always be remembered that it “’tis the season to be jolly”, taking the above steps will hopefully mean a jolly start to 2016 too, free from having to sort out any fallout from your Christmas party.

Can I discipline employees for their bad behaviour at the party?

With eggnog and mulled wine flowing, it’s certainly not unknown for work Christmas parties to get out of hand. However, so long as the event is an extension of work, the badly-behaved employee can be disciplined in the usual way. A disciplinary process normally starts with a letter being sent to the employee setting out the allegations and possible consequences (i.e. warning or dismissal), holding a meeting with them (at which they have the right to be accompanied by a work colleague or trade union representative) and then deciding on what, if any, action is to be taken. Complete the process by informing the employee of your decision in writing and notifying them of their right to appeal against the decision if they are unhappy with it.

Click here for a discussion on addressing Christmas party punch-ups when they do happen.

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This article was written by Katee Dias, Senior Solicitor, Employment Department, with assistance from Emily Kearsey, Trainee Solicitor.

This guide is for general information and interest only and should not be relied upon as providing specific legal advice.  If you require any further information about the issues raised in this article please contact the author or call 0207 404 0606 and ask to speak to your usual Goodman Derrick contact.