How to plan a trouble-free Christmas party

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Thinking about the office Christmas party. After a long hard year, employees are ready to let their hair down and celebrate.

The work Christmas party is a great way for the management team to thank their staff and acknowledge the hard work that has been put in throughout the year. It is also a great way to motivate your teams and retain them into the new year.

There are also more serious and potentially costly employment issues that should be considered by employers before planning the ‘party to end all parties’.  A common theme for such parties is free-flowing alcohol.  An inappropriate word or deed fuelled by alcohol during the night out could lead to an employment tribunal claim against an employer.  The office party is considered an extension of the workplace and therefore the same rules around what is appropriate apply. This is a sobering thought for many employers.

Recently a partner at city firm Freshfields was ordered to pay £235,000 in fines and costs, after he was found by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal to have breached the legal profession’s rules by engaging in sexual activity with a junior colleague who was intoxicated. The publicity surrounding this case would have tarnished Freshfields reputation.

This should not scare anyone into cancelling Christmas and banning parties, however, a there are a few top tips to ensure that everyone can have a great time:

Enjoy the ‘spirit’ of Christmas in moderation
Unsurprisingly, a significant number of employment tribunal claims that arise after staff parties are alcohol related. Some companies (particularly those with US parents) have imposed a dry party policy. You do not have to go to that extreme, but it is sensible to limit the number of free drinks per person and communicate this to all staff ahead of the event.

The case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited is a tale of how a work party can go catastrophically wrong.  Late in the night, after a lot of alcohol, the conversation turned to office politics. The managing director of NLR, John Major, took offence to the words of Mr Bellman (an employee) and repeatedly punched him. Mr Bellman was knocked unconscious and suffered a severe brain injury, to the extent that he is unlikely to be able to work again. A claim was raised for personal injury against NRL because it should be liable for the actions of its managing director.

Meet me under the Mistletoe’ is a step in the wrong direction
Although a kiss under the mistletoe has become synonymous with Christmas, employees really should think twice before puckering up at the party.  The very public cases of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour in the media and entertainment industries has made the public much more aware of what is not acceptable in the workplace.

A sensitively worded ‘office party statement’ setting out what should be avoided is a good way of making sure everybody knows what is and isn’t acceptable. This should include the repercussions of violent behaviour.

How ‘social’ do you want to be?
The rise in social media, selfies and live-streaming gives rise to the possibility of claims of bullying by employees. It is worth bearing in mind that not everyone wants their attempt at ‘flossing’ to go viral before they have got in the cab to go home.

If you have a work social media policy, it is worth reminding staff of this ahead of the party season and reminding them that sharing videos or photos that may cause embarrassment to others will not be tolerated. If you don’t, have such a policy, an email or memo sent to employees about what is and is not acceptable will suffice.

Know your audience
Not everyone in your organisation will celebrate Christmas. Other faiths do not permit the consumption of alcohol or certain foods and this should be considered when planning menus and venues. When choosing a venue, you should also consider any disabilities within the team. It is important that no one feels alienated from the celebrations.  Again, failing to consider such matters could land an employer in hot water and expose them to claims of race, religion or belief and disability discrimination.

Home ‘safe and sound’
As an employer, you have a duty of care to your employees which extends to out of hours events. While you are not obliged to provide transport, or ensure that your staff get home safety, an employer may be liable if an employee is involved in an accident whilst driving under the influence of alcohol. Providing transport home is a best way to mitigate that risk however, if that is not an option, an email reminding staff to plan their journey home is advisable.

Careful planning
I hope I have not left you feeling like I am the Grinch who stole Christmas. The office Christmas party is something that everyone should look forward. These tips should help get the balance and ensure that all staff enjoy themselves and stay safe and protect you against costly claims.


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