Christmas parties, perhaps inevitably, are a solid source of enquiries for employment lawyers and HR professionals. The chances of something going wrong are high. Naturally, staff look forward to a release after a year of hard work. Add alcohol and party spirit(s) and you have all the ingredients to create a heady cocktail of grievances, harassment claims, disciplinaries and dismissals.
Every year, you can expect reported cases arising from Christmas parties, such as the drunken employee who was dismissed after he punched his boss, to the employee who was found to have been harassed as a result of water cooler gossip. (Gossip spread that they had slept with a colleague at the hotel booked by the company to accommodate staff after the Christmas party.) Then there are the various Insta stories, Tweets and Facebook posts with incriminating pictures, posted online for posterity.
Organising events to bring your staff together and cement that team spirit is great – I’m certainly not here to play Scrooge! But just remember to cover off what happens if they get too close, especially if someone is (too) drunk, or objects to a colleague’s behaviour, or is wildly inappropriate or aggressive.
This is important, because Christmas parties will usually be regarded as an extension of the workplace. That means employers can be held responsible for staff conduct at the party. In the case of hitting the boss, the employer could be responsible for the injuries caused by the punch. To avoid liability, employers would need to prove that the employee’s behaviour was outside of what they had sanctioned and approved, and in the case of harassment, that they had taken all reasonable steps to prevent the harassment occurring in the first place.
That in turn means it’s important to have clear policies about conduct at work and work-related events that can set out the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not. It is sensible to publish policies and procedures to staff before issues arise: notifying them of the types of behaviour that are unacceptable; training them on matters like harassment in the #MeToo era; and about the potential sanctions – which also makes it easier to take action if issues do crop up.
So, employers should:
Ensure your staff handbook includes disciplinary rules and procedures; alcohol and drug use policy; anti-bullying policy; grievance procedure; whistleblowing policy; harassment policy; social media policy; and rules about relationships between colleagues.
Have compliant contracts of employment in place.
Train managers and staff on acceptable behaviour rules including harassment/sexual harassment training. One employer I know of summoned all their directors to a posh venue at which they were given a very stark lesson on what was not acceptable behaviour for a Christmas party, following a large number of harassment complaints arising from the previous one!
Take steps to deal promptly and appropriately with any issues arising from the Christmas party.
The main message to get out is that it’s OK for your team to have fun – have a drink or three if they want (whilst making clear those who don’t drink for whatever reason will also be looked after) – but do make clear that staff and managers must also remember a work event has boundaries, responsibilities and potential consequences that wouldn’t necessarily be so strict in their non-work lives.
Providing fun for staff at the employer’s expense is part of creating a positive picture of the kind of character and ethos you want your organisation to have, showing that you encourage and reward good work and practice. Just don’t forget to show too that you will always be fair and deal appropriately with the bad behaviour.