How to minimise legal risk at the staff Christmas party

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The work Christmas party can bring everyone together and reward employees for their hard work, but for employers there’s bigger risks than just getting a hangover

While you will want your employees to let their hair down and enjoy themselves, mixing alcohol, a party atmosphere and lowered inhibitions doesn’t always make for an evening of festive fun.

From allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination to absenteeism and disciplinary issues, the potential risks to employers if the Christmas party isn’t managed properly can be vast.

Businesses can be held legally responsible for the actions of their employees at staff parties, even if the event takes place outside of work hours and off site. For example, one sales manager successfully sued the company he worked for after he was left with brain damage following a punch from his boss at the Christmas party.

With the festive party season in full swing, employers should take appropriate steps to minimise the risk of any legal problems arising.

While it can be hard to find the right balance, these tips will help ensure that both employers and employees can enjoy themselves and head into the new year without any unwanted hangovers.

DO

  • Be inclusive – Make sure you invite all staff to the Christmas party, including those on maternity and sick leave. However, bear in mind that some employees may not want to attend for personal or religious reasons so equally make sure they don’t feel pressured to.
  • Cater for everyone – Pay careful attention to location, catering and entertainment, and consider what alternatives will ensure your celebrations are welcoming to all. For example, be sure to offer non-alcoholic drinks and provide for specific dietary requirements. Also, assess any entertainment ahead of the event to ensure that it will not make any employees feel uncomfortable.
  • Make sure your staff handbook is up to date – Remind your workforce that your HR policies – including your disciplinary, anti-bullying and harassment policies – apply at social events, even when held outside of normal office hours. It may be useful to send an email around the week before highlighting expectations, so that everyone is up to date and to help prevent anyone from getting too carried away.
  • Remind staff about your sickness and absence policy – Particularly if your festive celebrations are being held mid-week, a timely reminder will help to discourage people from taking unjustified sick leave or to suddenly announce they are working from home on the day after your party.
  • Follow your normal disciplinary procedures – If individuals do behave unacceptably at the Christmas party make sure you deal with any incidents as you would with any office dispute. While certain steps may need to be taken at the time it’s best not to discipline employees at the event. Instead take appropriate measures at the first opportunity when back in the office.
  • Consider setting a limit on the free bar – Most incidents that occur at Christmas parties are alcohol induced. Therefore consider setting a limit at the beginning of the night to help avoid excessive consumption. Equally, line managers can play a key role in setting a good example, particularly to younger employees, so consider asking them to take it easy during the festivities.

DON’T

  • Forget to check accessibility – It is crucial to ensure that your venue is easily accessible to any disabled staff. Failure to do so could not only ruin an employee’s evening but also result in claims of discrimination.
  • Forget to consider transportation – As an employer you still have a duty of care to make sure that your staff can get home easily and safely. Some companies now consider ending the celebrations before public transport stops running. However, if this doesn’t suit your party, be sure to advise your staff to plan their journeys home in advance or consider organising taxis.
  • Allow underage drinking – If any of your staff are under 18 it is vital to ensure they are not drinking at the event and that alternative options are available for them.

Claire Woolf is a managing editor at Sparqa Legal

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