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‘Tis the season for Christmas Parties

Acuity have their firm-wide Christmas Party next week (which we are all very excited for!) – but what about when Christmas Parties go wrong?

With all the best intentions at heart, if company's don't set expectations from the outset they could find themselves starting off the new year with a host employment problems to manage.

Christmas parties organised by, or on behalf of, a business will most likely be deemed to be taken "in the course of employment". This has implications for the business and your staff. From a business perspective, not only are there reputational risks associated with poorly behaved employees, but there is also the risk of being held vicariously liable for their actions. In the recently decided case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited [2018] EWCA Civ 2214 the Court of Appeal held that there was sufficient connection between a managing director's job and his drunken, post-Christmas Party assault on a colleague to render the company vicariously liable for his actions. In this case, a group of employees left the party in taxis paid for by the company to carry on drinking at a hotel. It was found that the drinks were, at least in part, directly orchestrated by the managing director. During the drinks, the managing director chose to "wear his metaphorical managing director's hat" and deliver a "lecture to his subordinates". When he was challenged by a colleague about his management style, the managing director threw a punch! Ouch!

A key factor in this case was the managing director's seniority and the role that he chose to play during the drinks at the hotel. However, it was emphasised in the judgement that this case is not authority for the proposition that employers became insurers for violent or tortious acts by their employees. Liability will not arise just because there is an argument about work matters between colleagues, which leads to an assault, even when one colleague is markedly more senior than another.

In respect of the risks for employees, the potential for disciplinary sanctions is obvious, but there are more subtle dangers to be aware of. For example, managers making light hearted  comments about their teams' performance, or general observations about a colleagues' dress. If both parties have been drinking, comments which may ordinarily have been taken as light-hearted, or "banter", may be misunderstood (or indeed, misremembered). This can have serious and detrimental effects on team dynamics and relationships and ultimately, the working environment for all.

It's also important to remember that not all employees will want to celebrate Christmas in the pub, whether that be for medical, religious or personal reasons. Businesses are therefore encouraged to be sympathetic when organising how best to celebrate the festivities without causing offence or exclusion.

As a business, please remember:

  • it is always worth circulating a little reminder to your workforce about the fact that whilst the Christmas Party is an opportunity to relax and have a good time with colleagues, it is still a work event, and behaviour should reflect this
  • whilst a business may put some money behind the bar to assist with "getting into the Christmas spirit", paying for employees to get "drunk" could enhance the risk of the company being vicariously liable for any aftermath
  • morning-after allegations should be dealt with seriously, however there is often a benefit to having a "cooling off" period. Nevertheless, employees should always be reminded of their obligations of confidentiality and in particular, that they shouldn’t be posting anything on social media about workplace issues
  • linked to the above, employees should be made aware (through your social media policy) that photos and/or videos posted online which could bring the company into disrepute may lead to disciplinary action.

Ultimately, a responsible employer which takes positive steps to prevent poor behaviours will be in a better position to take appropriate action when things go wrong. Including maintaining a stronger position to defend any claims and keep your businesses' reputation intact.  For further guidance on how best to prepare for the festivities, or deal with the aftermath, please contact our employment team.

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