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Silent Night, Office Party Night, All Was Calm, Will It Be Alright?

Here we are, a few weeks away from Christmas, and office parties are taking place up and down the country.  Whether or not you allow festive jumpers to be worn in the workplace, there is generally an element of cheer amongst employees, with plenty of talk of turkeys and time off, baubles and bonuses.  Yet every year, for employers (and employment lawyers), this period can be less “It’s A Wonderful Life” and more “The Nightmare Before Christmas”.  With the help of some of our favourite Christmas song lyrics, this article revisits the dangers of this time of year and gives you some dos and don’ts which are worth keeping in mind during the holiday season.


Oh come all ye faithful

You should ensure that all employees are invited to the office Christmas party regardless of their faith or ethnicity.  It is also important to extend invitations to employees on maternity or paternity leave and it may also be appropriate to invite those on sick leave.  Doing these things will minimise the risk of a discrimination claim.  That said, you cannot force people to attend, particularly if attending would make them feel uncomfortable (perhaps for religious reasons).  Office parties often fall outside working hours and employees do have other commitments which may prevent them from attending.


When the kids start singing and the band begins to play

Choose the right venue.  Make sure it is accessible to all and appropriate for all age groups attending.  Similarly, think about any entertainment; material should not offend anyone.  Employers have in the past been held liable for third parties who cause offence at staff parties. 


Santa Claus is coming to town

If Secret Santa is a tradition in your office, remind employees that gifts that might cause great hilarity to the giver and onlookers can cause great embarrassment to the recipient.  In other words, Santa socks are a safer bet than naughty knickers.


Last Christmas I gave you my heart, but the very next day you gave it away

A promise made at a Christmas party is still a promise.  “But I’d had a bit to drink and didn’t really mean it” is not a reliable excuse or a way to renege on a promise made to an employee.  So it is best to avoid discussions with employees about pay rises, performance or promotion at these sorts of occasions.


So here it is, “Merry” Christmas

Without wishing to dampen the spirit of the office Christmas party, subsidising drinks or providing a free bar isn’t a great idea.  It is worth thinking about limiting the amount of alcohol available and ensuring that non-alcoholic drinks are provided also.  This ought to help curb excessive drinking and should also minimise the risk of claims of unlawful discrimination by employees who do not consume alcohol on religious grounds.  Ensuring that there is food available, perhaps by offering a meal at the party, is also a good idea as this can also help to prevent excessive drunkenness.  Remember that any catering arrangements should take account of different individual and religious dietary requirements.


‘Tis the season to be jolly

It is worth reminding employees of the behaviour that will be deemed acceptable at the party.  Although usually the party will be off-site, the Christmas celebration is still a work-related event.  Employees can be encouraged to let their hair down, but they also need to know the boundaries and the disciplinary sanctions that could result from a breach of the rules.  Party policies might seem a little “unfestive” but they do demonstrate to employees that you are looking out for them.


Drivin’ home for Christmas

An employer’s duty of care towards employees in the course of their employment extends to events like the office Christmas party.  Considering the safety and welfare of your employees is important so it is worth considering things like ensuring that staff make it home safely, particularly where employees have been drinking.  Ending the party before public transport stops running or pre-arranging taxis to take staff home are both good ways to fulfil that duty of care. 


On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me…

In today’s instantly connected world, it is very easy for employees (especially drunk employees) to post or tweet photos of their colleagues looking “worse for wear” on social media. Unless the photographed employee has given (sober) consent to the photo being uploaded, there could be a data protection breach.  Further, any inappropriate photo, message or commentary can cause embarrassment or offence to colleagues or the employer, and can also damage an employer’s reputation or the trust between an employer and employee.  Having an appropriate social media policy in place prior to the event may help to avoid such issues. 


I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe last night

Despite its festive atmosphere, an office Christmas party is legally an extension of the office environment even if it is held offsite and outside working hours.  Employers are therefore likely to remain liable for acts of harassment, discrimination, assault or other unwanted conduct carried out by their employees.  Do not discipline any employees at the party itself.  Send them home if necessary and deal with the incident when you are back at the office - and sober.


Twinkle twinkle Christmas star, how I wonder where you are

Be clear about what you expect of your employees the day after the night before.  Let staff know if they are allowed to come in late the next day, and be clear as to what lateness is acceptable and what is not.  Usual disciplinary action can be taken if necessary (subject to a fair procedure), but do not expect too much from those staff who do make it in if the drinks had been flowing.


This article was first published on 2 December 2015 as part of our Employment Law Update series. Register above to receive our updates as soon as they are published, directly to your inbox!

This article is offered for general informational purposes only, and does not constitute legal advice. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Solomon Taylor & Shaw