the office Christmas party – a work highlight or HR headache?

the office Christmas party – a work highlight or HR headache?

Last year the great office Christmas party was cancelled for many. Covid restrictions impacted festivities in the same way Ebenezer Scrooge did in the 19th century Dickens novel. Real world parties were cancelled, and events became virtual quizzes or online cocktail making remote, organised fun.

This year, it feels as though normality is returning for most businesses. The office Christmas party season is now upon us, and the festive frolics will soon be in full swing. Depending on where you work and whether you can stand the sight of your colleagues, these events can be the highlight of the work calendar with team bonding at its best. But hands up who’s made an idiot of themselves at the office Christmas do and sobered up the next morning recalling some David Brent style shenanigans?

Managing the work Christmas party can be a headache for employers as they seek to ensure everyone is happy and behaves “appropriately” without dampening the Christmas spirt. Whilst we don’t want to be the party pooper, we thought we would highlight a few tips to help avoid the post party headache:

  • Prior to the event employers should remind staff that they are representatives of the Company, and the party is still a work event. There should be clear communication regarding some ground rules, expectations and conduct policies. A reminder about social media posts may also be wise at this stage. The employment tribunal judgment in the case of Gimson v Display by Design Ltd provided a firm reminder that the conduct of employees outside of the workplace can give rise to disciplinary action, including dismissal. In that case there was a physical bust up between colleagues whilst walking home from the party and the employee failed in his claim for unfair dismissal because it still counted as conduct “at” the workplace.
  • Whilst an alcohol-fueled brawl or the use of illegal drugs are clear misconduct issues that will result in disciplinary action, everyone should be reminded that discriminatory comments and acts of harassment will not be tolerated. Unlawful harassment is unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity or creating a hostile or intimidating environment, where the conduct occurs on the grounds of sex, race, disability, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, religion, age, or belief. When alcohol impacts people’s inhibitions issues are more likely to arise. As such, a drunken attempt to make an unwelcome move on a colleague can lead to a harassment complaint. We should add that harassment must be “unwanted”, but equally, many employers have policies dealing with relationships between staff, so welcomed/consensual advances aren’t necessarily without issue.
  • Health and safety issues should be considered, and risk assessments should be carried out in some cases, particularly where the event is taking place on work premises. Try to manage the amount and type of alcohol consumed. Of course, employers will want to thank employees with a glass or four but, as we will all know to our detriment, there is a fine line between feeling jolly and when it can all go horribly wrong. Considering an alcohol limit may be sensible. Providing food to absorb some of the alcohol is an essential step, as is taking some steps to ensure staff get home safely. Employers certainly cannot put on a party and ignore their obligation to take care of their staff’s health and safety at the event itself and on the way home.
  • Review your Equality and Diversity policy. Everyone should be invited and welcomed to the party and considerations should be made for those with disabilities who may require reasonable adjustments to attend, special dietary requirements (including those linked to health conditions), as well as ethical beliefs such as veganism and dietary needs of pregnant women or those with religious beliefs who may, for instance, prefer a non-alcoholic beverage alternative to be easily available. Employers should also be mindful that some will not celebrate Christmas for religious reasons and may prefer not to attend. Similarly, those with childcare or caring responsibilities may have difficulty attending an event outside work hours. No one should be criticised or treated differently because they choose to attend or choose not to.
  • If complaints and concerns are raised after the event, employers will need to investigate in accordance with the Company grievance procedure, which may include reference to the disciplinary policy or other policies relating to equality and harassment. Applying these policies fairly should help to avoid further allegations of unfair treatment or discrimination relating to the employer’s investigation process.
  • Reviewing the sickness policy prior to the event may also be a good idea to ensure that everyone is aware of the expectations if the post-party hangover presents an appearance in the office the morning after the night before. Scheduling the event on a Friday may help to avoid this awkwardness for all, as may flexibility on start times the day after. Ordering in a supply of bacon sandwiches (or a suitable alternative of course) might be a welcome gesture.

As employment lawyers, we brace ourselves for the phone to ring off the hook during the office Christmas party season (although please don’t call us on 10 December as we may be a little worse for wear after our own event). As with many things, prevention is better than cure. Whilst we certainly don’t want to be the “fun police”, we know too well that the combination of “one-too-many” and Slade’s Christmas classic blasting across the dancefloor does occasionally give rise to conflict. Whether you are the victim or protagonist of some overenthusiastic or wholly inappropriate behaviour, or HR left to pick up the pieces, there are rarely any post-party winners when things get out of hand.

Merry Christmas Everybody.

This blog is by Caroline Oliver, Senior Solicitor, didlaw.