The annual Christmas party is often one of the most anticipated events on the office social calendar. It's a chance to eat, drink and be merry, often at the company's expense, sometimes in more ways than one! ……

Alcohol. Things often get a little rowdy when the wine has been flowing all night. Unorthodox use of the photocopier, amorous activity on company premises or insulting the boss are all examples of behaviour which is likely to end with the culprits tangled up in disciplinary proceedings.

Alcohol has also been known to loosen the tongue and, whilst this may usually involve more junior staff members, occasionally it is the bosses who slip up. In Judge v Crown Leisure Limited, an employee claimed his boss had promised him a significant pay rise in the course of a discussion at the Christmas party. When this did not materialise he resigned and claimed constructive dismissal. Ultimately, the employee lost, though not before a visit to the Court of Appeal and undoubtedly a prolonged hangover for the employer concerned!

Top tips:

  • Be clear about expected standards of conduct, that intoxication will not be accepted as an excuse and that inappropriate conduct may lead to dismissal.
  • Don't negotiate terms and conditions under the influence!
  • Providing plenty of non-alcoholic drinks and food should go some way to balancing out the effects of any free alcohol on offer!

Discrimination and Harassment. A recent CIPD survey of 2,000 employees revealed that 1 in 10 knew someone from their organisation who has either been disciplined or dismissed for inappropriate behaviour at the Christmas do. Top of the list were punch-ups and threatening behaviour. Sexual harassment also ranked highly. In Livesy v Parker Merchanting, an employee was sexually harassed on the way home from the Christmas party. There had also been earlier incidents of harassment during normal work hours and at the party itself. This was held to be a continuous course of conduct, that all the incidents were within the course of employment and the employer was found vicariously liable.

Remember also that certain events, for example those centred on the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol, may exclude, or potentially offend, individuals with particular religious beliefs. Employers should strive to make their Christmas events as inclusive as possible.  

In addition, employers who provide after-dinner speakers should take care who they choose, bearing in mind the case where a post-dinner speech by Bernard Manning left the host hotel liable for the offence caused to Afro-Caribbean waitresses by his racist jokes.

Top tip:

  • Check your equal opportunities policy is up-to-date and covers all strands of discrimination and harassment. Ensure staff are aware of it and that disciplinary action will be taken in relation to unacceptable conduct during social occasions.

The evidence! The rise of social networking sites has thrown a new peril into the mix. Pictures of colleagues misbehaving at work parties posted on social networking sites, websites and blogs could lead to grievances and damage to reputation.

Top tip:

  • Ensure these activities are covered in your policies and make it clear that breaches are liable to result in disciplinary action including dismissal.

Provided employers take pro-active steps to drive home the message that company policies are equally applicable in the party setting, make clear the potential consequences of breach, investigate any complaints promptly, and take action where appropriate, in accordance with the ACAS Code of Practice, there is no reason to fear the festive cheer.