‘Tis the season to be Jolly

It has been nearly 2 years (!) since businesses were able to have a Christmas party due to the pandemic. This year, the Government have indicated that currently, Christmas/Christmas parties can continue to go ahead subject to a number of safety measures. However, the Government are continuing to observe the situation regarding the spread of the Omicron variant and the guidance may change.

In the event that Government advice permits Christmas parties to proceed, there are still some factors that will need to be taken into consideration.

COVID safety measures 

Undertake a risk assessment as to whether the party should proceed.

Ensure Government guidance permits Christmas parties immediately prior to the party date;

Ensuring all attendees know that they should not attend if they have any symptoms of COVID; and

Ensure all attendees undertake a lateral flow test taken on the day of the Christmas party with a negative result being provided to the employer in advance.

Discrimination, bullying and harassment

Employers should ensure that ALL employees are invited to the office Christmas party. Failure to do so, could result in complaints of detriment and/or discrimination.

In particular, it is important to ensure employees on family leave including maternity or paternity leave are invited. It may also be appropriate to invite those on sick leave depending on the nature of their illness.

This year especially, many employees are not in the office as normal. It is therefore important that any employees working from home or working remotely are also invited.

On the other hand, employers should not insist that all employees attend the Christmas party. Where the party takes place out of office hours, employers should remember that employees may have other responsibilities which may prevent them from attending. Employers should be careful not to pressurise employees including those of non-Christian faiths into attending the Christmas Party if this would make them feel uncomfortable.

You should also consider whether it is appropriate/necessary to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees where arrangements may result in disabled staff suffering a disadvantage due to their disability.

Employers should have robust and detailed policies and procedures in place which cover key issues including equality and diversity, discrimination, bullying and harassment.

Staff should be trained on discrimination, harassment and bullying in the workplace including sexual harassment to ensure staff understand what can potentially constitute harassment and where the boundaries lie. Christmas parties can result in claims of harassment including sexual harassment and resulting in grievances which in turn may result in the need for investigations and potentially disciplinary action. In order to protect from this, robust policies should not only be in place but should be communicated effectively to staff in advance of the party.

It is important to bear in mind that harassment which takes place immediately after or on the way home from a Christmas party can be viewed as a continuation of harassment in the workplace with the employer being held vicariously liable.

As stated above, it is always helpful to remind employees of the relevant policies and procedures that are in place.

While it is difficult to stop employees from over-indulging during the festive period, limiting the amount of free alcohol at the office party, providing non-alcoholic options and supplying enough food can all help minimise the risk of employees getting ‘too merry’. Remember to keep an eye out for office juniors as employers cannot allow under 18’s to drink.

Employers should also be sensitive to employees who do not drink alcohol or who do not eat certain foods and ensure that the catering arrangements take account of different individual and religious dietary requirements including halal.

Employers have a duty of care towards employees in the course of their employment and this duty extends to events like the office Christmas party. Employers should consider post-party travel arrangements for their employees to reduce the likelihood of employees taking undue risks during their journey home. For example, ending the party before public transport stops running, or encouraging employees to use local registered cab companies particularly where they have been drinking alcohol and cannot drive home.

Alcohol/drug use and/or fuelled behaviour is a common cause of disciplinary action following the Christmas party; therefore, educating the staff as to the company’s expectations of behaviour at the function and the potential consequences of misconduct is good practice. Emphasise that any incidents of bullying, discrimination, harassment, violence or other drunken behaviour will not be tolerated. It should also confirm how any unacceptable behaviour will be dealt with.

Venue, entertainment and speakers

Choosing the right venue for the Christmas party can be a huge responsibility. The principle aim is to enable all employees to attend the party and enjoy the occasion but do so safely.

Employers should consider hosting the party at a location that is accessible by all employees, suitable for employees of all ages, and provides facilities for those with a disability. Venues which might offend those of a particular religion or sex should be avoided as this could result in claims for discrimination.

Social Media

The increasing use of social media platforms and sites including Facebook and Twitter add yet another risk associated with the office Christmas party. It is very tempting for users of these sites to upload photos of their colleagues often looking a bit worse for wear. This could raise data protection issues if those appearing in photos have not consented to their images being uploaded on to social media sites. There is also a risk of employees posting inappropriate messages on social media sites which could cause offence or embarrassment to anyone referred to in the post or to the employer.

Such activities could damage the reputation of employees and the trust between colleagues, and in serious cases could bring the employer’s name into disrepute. Employers are advised to have social media policies in place and ensure employees are informed of the likely consequences or disciplinary sanctions which could result from inappropriate use of social media.

It is important to make sure policies and procedures are up-to-date and in place to provide transparency for employees on the do’s and don’ts concerning their personal and professional social/business media accounts. An increasing risk is the temptation to share office party antics on sites such as Facebook and Twitter which may bring about reputational damage and potentially data protection issues for those who appear in the images who had not given consent to such images being shared on social/business media platforms.

Employers should decide how lenient or not they will be in relation to lateness or absence for work on the morning after the office party. Employees should be made aware that absences will be monitored and that disciplinary action could be taken if they fail to turn up for work because of over-indulgence. Employers should also be vigilant of employees who arrive at work still drunk, especially if they will be driving or operating machinery as part of their job.

Any complaints from staff should always be taken seriously and appropriate channels followed in accordance with the company’s policies and procedures.

Finally, have fun! It is a party after all.

If you are not sure if your policies meet the necessary requirements and think you would benefit from a free overview, please contact our Employment Team who can review your policies and if need be, draft bespoke policies tailored to you and your business.

We also deliver on-site bespoke training sessions on bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. For further details contact Sarah Collier, Partner & Head of Employment Law.