With the office Christmas party season in full swing, employers are being advised to make sure their staff know what’s acceptable and what’s not when it comes to festive fun.
Sarah Furness, partner in the employment law team at Hay & Kilner Law Firm in Newcastle, has issued a checklist to help owner/managers prepare properly for staying on the right side of the law in case any staff celebrations get out of hand.
And she is advising that they learn from past mistakes by taking the right steps before any company-organised office party to protect both themselves and their staff.
Any such social events, whether in or out of working hours and on or off site, can be seen as an extension of the workplace, and as such, any bad behaviour can have significant legal, financial and reputational implications for the business.
Sarah Furness says: “No-one wants to play Scrooge at Christmas, and most end of year celebrations usually go off without any major incidents – but that said, staff need to know the boundaries of what is acceptable behaviour if businesses are to safeguard against having more than just a headache the morning after.
“Every year, we see significant cases reaching the courts arising from incidents at work parties where things have got out of hand, and no business owner wants to be the next one to be added to the list.”
Recent cases which have ended up in the legal system include an employee suffering a serious back injury after an over-excited colleague lifted her up at a work party, lost his balance and dropped her to the floor.
She claimed negligence on the part of her employers, pointing to the presence of alcohol and its impact on behaviour, although as the company was able to demonstrate that rigorous risk assessments had been undertaken, the court ruled there was an insufficient connection between her colleague’s work role and their actions at the party.
Another case arose after an employee was left with long-term brain injuries when the managing director hit him after a fight broke out, with the Court of Appeal finding that the company was liable for the assault due to the senior nature of the managing director’s role creating a position of authority that was held around the clock.
Sarah Furness continues: “Christmas parties can be a test for the culture of a business and its employment policies, and it’s not one that bosses will want to risk failing.
“To protect staff and themselves, it’s essential that companies assess and guard against potential risks, including setting out expected standards of behaviour, limiting the amount of alcohol and having a clear boundary for when the event will close.
“Aggression and sexual harassment are the most common forms of misconduct at such events, something no organisation wants to see happening at what is supposed to be a festive celebration, and either issue can lead to substantial claims for compensation, with the associated damage to a company’s reputation.”
Sarah’s Christmas party checklist recommends that bosses:
- Manage overall alcohol consumption so employees don’t lose their usual workplace inhibitions.
- Ensure non-alcoholic drinks are available and remind everyone that actions or comments that would be unacceptable behaviour in the workplace still hold in the relaxed atmosphere of the party.
- Are clear about when the event will close and make everyone aware at the appropriate time that the party is over.
- Are alert for health and safety risks the morning after if it’s a working day, particularly where machinery or driving is involved, in case anyone is still under the influence of alcohol.
- Act promptly to investigate anything that may have happened and make sure grievance or disciplinary policies are followed.