As the annual round of Christmas parties and social events begins, employers should be dusting down the “bar humbug” reminders to staff about the standard of behaviour expected in the season of peace and goodwill to all.

Aside from the reputational issues arising from misbehaviour in public or in front of customers or clients, employers can be held vicariously liable for acts of discrimination or harassment committed by their employees towards colleagues.

Events arising out of office Christmas parties have been the basis for many dismissals and subsequent employment tribunal claims over the years. In Sellers v Y H Training Services Ltd, the employer’s managing director touched the claimant, who was wearing a sleeveless dress, first on the shoulder and then her bare arm.  This was found to be an act of sexual harassment. The duration of the contact was longer than ordinary social contact and, as the managing director would not have touched a man in this way, had sexual connotations.

It is also old news that incidents arising at events which are not obviously work-related can still form the basis of claims for which the employer can be vicariously liable. In the Chief Constable of the Lincolnshire Police v  Stubbs [1999], the claimant was sexually harassed by colleagues when she went for drinks on two occasions at a pub. The employer was held liable because the acts had taken place at social gatherings that could be regarded as an extension of the claimant’s employment.

Employers can escape liability for acts of discrimination or harassment if they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent the perpetrator from committing the act. In the content of work social events, this will include:

  • Implementing and enforcing clear equal opportunities and anti-harassment policies, which are expressed to apply to conduct at authorised work-related events outside of the workplace;
  • Ensure such policies have management backing and are supplemented by adequate training programmes and effective disciplinary sanctions;
  • If appropriate, warn employees prior to a party or social event to be on their “best behaviour” and limit the opportunities for employees to drink to excess.