The 2022 winter work party season is upon us, providing the first real opportunity in a few years for end-of-year celebrations. Whether at company, location, or team level, seasonal gatherings provide a chance for employers to thank staff for their hard work and for everyone to relax, socialise and have some fun with their colleagues. Yet without careful thought and planning, they can be problematic for employers who can find themselves faced with fallout from the festivities.

Here are our top tips and reminders for UK employers:

  1. See the party as an extension of the workplace: Just because an event is taking place outside working hours or at an external venue does not mean it is not ‘work’. Workplace policies continue to apply, and employers may find themselves vicariously liable for the actions of their employees, particularly in respect of discrimination and injury.
  1. Work parties should not be compulsory: Inclusivity should be at the core of party organisation (see below) but there are a variety of reasons why someone may not want to, or be able to, attend (and for many events it could be impossible to schedule something which works for everyone). Any concerns about attendance should be addressed, and no-one should be put under pressure to go along or be treated differently as a result of attending (or not).
  1. Beware of discrimination risks when organising events: When planning events, organisers should be as inclusive as possible, remembering for example that days or times chosen may preclude certain people (e.g. with childcare or caring responsibilities or religious observances) from attending; locations will need to accommodate any disabled workers; and food and drink options should meet all religious, cultural and dietary requirements.
  1. Respect different religions and cultures: Employers should remain mindful that the winter period coincides with festivals and events for different religions (e.g. Christmas and Hanukkah) but that not everyone will celebrate these for religious or other reasons. Employers should avoid focussing on any particular celebration, and be careful with language to promote inclusivity.
  1. Watch for inappropriate behaviour: Often informal and relaxed, with alcohol available, work parties are meant to be fun. However, with guards down and inhibitions lowered, there is increased scope for misplaced and unwelcome comments, inappropriate physical contact, sexual harassment, alcohol and substance abuse. It may be appropriate for behaviour to be discreetly monitored during work events, for staff to be reminded about expected levels of behaviour, and that bullying, harassment and any other relevant policies still apply. Any issues that are raised or identified should be addressed and handled under the company’s usual discipline and grievance procedures.
  1. A little less conversation: Managers may find themselves drawn into discussions about pay, promotions or other matters affecting an individual, team or wider business. They should refrain from doing so, and be carefully briefed on what they can or cannot say (particularly if there is a hot topic at the time). Legally binding commitments could end up being made (albeit arguably difficult to prove), or sensitive or confidential information about the business or other people accidentally shared.
  1. The morning after the night before: Work parties are often held on a mid-week evening, and with late nights and overindulgence a side effect of a good event, timekeeping and attendance the following day could be affected. Employers should consider what, if any, leeway will be given to start times, hours and places of work, and any adjustments to usual sickness absence procedures, and should communicate any pertinent points along with details of the consequences of failing to comply with the usual (or adjusted) attendance and sickness rules.
  1. Social media: Images of colleagues enjoying the work party may well find their way online. However, where the company is tagged or can be identified, or any of the people in the photographs have their profile linked to work or can otherwise be associated with the company, any inappropriate party images could be damaging to the company’s reputation. Where employers are concerned of this, they should have a robust social media policy and remind attendees of it.
  1. Health and safety: Employers are responsible for the health and safety of their staff, and this continues at a work party. Risk assessing the venue is sensible, checking for example that the site or any decorations do not pose a risk of slips, trips and falls. What alcohol (and its proportion to food) is provided should be considered carefully, and employers may want to explore ways in which it can ensure staff are able to safely and legally travel home after the event.
  1. Enjoy it: The risks associated with work parties might be enough for some companies deciding not to bother, but with careful and considered organisation, and a few precautionary measures in place, there is no reason why an entertaining and morale boosting end of year celebration, which remains professional while people are having fun, should not take place.