The annual Christmas party gives employers the opportunity to thank members of staff for their contribution over the past year and is a chance for everyone to relax and enjoy the holiday season. However, it is easy to forget that an employer owes its employees certain obligations, even outside work, when the event has been organised by the employer, and that employees’ conduct during it should comply with normal standards and should not breach workplace equal treatment and anti-harassment policies. An employer may be held vicariously liable for the actions of employees at such functions as they are likely to be considered as having occurred ‘in the course of employment’.
In order to prevent what should be a happy occasion from leading to recriminations or worse, an employer should take certain basic steps. Here are some of the more important ones:
- When planning any work event, thought should be given to whether it will coincide with the dates of religious festivals;
- Carry out a risk assessment – this should include the venue and, in particular, the possible risks associated with serving alcohol. Making sure employees can get home safely is important, so consider hiring transport or providing taxis if necessary. Ensure soft drinks are provided as an alternative to alcoholic drinks and that individual dietary requirements are catered for;
- Ensure that, if employees’ partners are invited, there is no discrimination with regard to who is included. Ensure also that reasonable adjustments are made to allow any disabled employee or partner to attend and that any employees absent on maternity leave or because of long-term sickness are included;
- Where possible, make sure that the arrangements accommodate the requirements of employees of different religions;
- Ensure that employees understand the difference between ‘banter’ and behaviour that could be considered to infringe the dignity of any person present…and if such behaviour occurs, act quickly to prevent a reoccurrence. Take prompt action if a complaint is received;
- Make sure that employees who are expected to attend work the day after the function understand that absence through over-indulgence is likely to be regarded as a disciplinary rather than a medical matter; and
- Make sure employees are aware that any illegal acts will not be tolerated.
The biggest problems that are likely to arise are that inappropriate behaviour may occur, especially if alcohol flows too freely, and that there may be conduct which members of a particular religious persuasion find objectionable.
Your firm’s contract of employment will probably deal with most or all of these issues. However, it is sensible to have a separate policy on what is expected of employees at workplace social events and to remind employees of its contents in advance of any function.
In one vicarious liability case, a claim was brought by an employee who was punched in the face by a colleague and suffered serious brain injury some time after a group of employees had left the firm’s Christmas party and adjourned to a nearby hotel. The High Court ruled that the employer could not be held liable for serious injuries inflicted by one member of staff on another some hours after the planned Christmas event had finished. This makes clear the wisdom of organising an event with an obvious finishing time, such as a meal at a restaurant, so that those who wish to continue to celebrate afterwards do so at a venue of their choice.
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