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The morning after: Are employers responsible for what happens at the Christmas party?

Written by Kate Palmer on Wednesday, 05 December 2018. Posted in Employment law, Legal

The holiday season is officially on and the Christmas parties have already begun. However, how can business bosses ensure they don’t end up in legal hot water due to their employees’ drunken shenanigans?

The morning after: Are employers responsible for what happens at the Christmas party?

As we approach the festive season many companies are likely to have planned their annual Christmas party. Whilst festive social gatherings are usually very popular with the workforce and can offer the chance to reward and engage with employees, they can also give rise to instances of poor behaviour from staff. Alcohol consumption coupled with a relaxed social atmosphere can foster situations which may not occur in the everyday office, ranging from unexpected romances, aggressive behaviour to more serious cases of discrimination and harassment. 

Although Christmas parties are fundamentally a social and fun occasion, they’re also, as official company-organised events, an extension of the working environment. In other words, if employees behave in an inappropriate, aggressive or dangerous manner whilst at the party, their employer may be responsible for their actions.

Legally, an employer has a duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees. By extension, they can be liable for actions committed by employees in the course of their employment if they cannot demonstrate taking reasonable steps to prevent it. For example, companies should have policies in place which set out the type of behaviour expected from employees and that which will be considered unacceptable. If an employee claims they’re being harassed by a colleague, the company is expected to take swift action to deal with it in line with their policy. An employee who is harassed may be able to seek compensation from their employer if they can prove the employer took no steps to prevent it. This is known as vicarious liability and also extends to other work-related social gatherings. 

The rise of the #MeToo movement which originated in October 2017 when Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of multiple counts of sexual misconduct, has seen a significant number of women across the globe coming forward claiming to have been sexually harassed within a professional environment. If this was to occur at a Christmas party and is not properly responded to by the employer, they could face claims of vicarious liability.

An employer should remember that this level of responsibility also extends to after party drinks. Although these are technically not officially organised by the company, it may still be liable for the actions of its employees if it can be established that their conduct is sufficiently connected to their position. An example of this is seen in the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited, where a manager punched his employee in the face. The Court of Appeal found that the company was liable for the actions of the manager as, although this occurred in an after party, all drinks and taxis had been paid for by the company and the manager was acting within his management capacity.

Although Christmas parties are usually a positive way of motivating a workforce and a fun occasion for everyone involved, companies must ensure that their workers maintain certain standards of behaviour. A key element for employers to demonstrate that they are not vicariously liable for the behaviour of an employee is to have a robust anti-harassment and bullying stance including policies and training for employees on the effect of the policy. 

About the Author

Kate Palmer

Kate Palmer

Kate Palmer is associate director of advisory at Peninsula. She joined in 2009. With a specialist background in facilities management in the NHS (public and private sectors), Kate offers a wealth of employment law experience. She’s an expert negotiator, one notable case was with the NHS’s trade unions over terms and conditions in the Agenda for Change pay system. 

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