Whilst many employees may be welcoming the arrival of the festive season and the array of office parties and workplace socials involved, senior managers and HR will be putting their thinking caps on, as well as their Santa hats, to seek ways to minimise the possibilities of any fallout following the merry times.

Unfortunate occurrences may include anything from alcohol-fuelled fistfights to inappropriate comments or behaviour amounting to sexual harassment.

Although the risks are real, there are steps employers can take to minimise their likelihood of occurring. We have been seeing an increase in such proactive management by employers since the pandemic and this is likely to continue in light of recent scandals that have come to light and the increasing interest of regulators (the FCA and SRA, for example) on workplace culture and the handling of misconduct.

The risks

  • Liability for inappropriate behaviour: Anything done by an employee in the course of their employment is treated as having also been done by the employer for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. That is, employers are vicariously liable for the acts of their employees. The office Christmas party is an extension of the workplace for these purposes, meaning employers may find themselves liable, for example, for the actions of an employee who sexually harasses another member of staff. A defence may be available to the employer if it can show that it took "all reasonable steps" to prevent the harassment from occurring, but the success of that will depend on the employer’s established policies, systems and processes for preventing the behaviour in question.
  • Discrimination based on the type of event or the provision within it: Some employees may feel unable to attend parties and social events, or feel limited in how they can participate based on the timing and type of event and the offering within it. For example, if the party begins/takes place entirely out of hours, this could disadvantage those with caring responsibilities. Failing to cater for possible religious or cultural requirements in the food and drink options made available could also be problematic.
  • Health and safety: Employers must ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety at work of their employees. An office Christmas party or other work social event will have health and safety risks associated with it which should be considered in advance. Those risk may be related to the activity in question, the venue, or travel arrangements, etc.
  • Damage to reputation: Thanks to social media, it is almost impossible to keep inappropriate behaviour at social events a secret. This is particularly so when people’s judgment may be clouded, resulting in them publishing posts they may not ordinarily have published. The sharing of videos and images of people on social media from which the employer may be identified could result in embarrassment and reputational damage, or unwelcome attention at the very least.

Limiting exposure

Although the above may be dim reading, there are practical steps employers can take in advance and during workplace parties/events to prevent these issues. We have listed some suggestions below:

  • Consider alternatives to the traditional “office party” and ask staff what they prefer. Alternatives which may be less likely to result in drink-fuelled inappropriate behaviour include team building lunches, cooking a team Christmas meal, chocolate tasting, go-karting, bowling, indoor darts or crazy golf. Such events may also take place (or at least begin) during office hours. Involving staff in the planning and decision-making process may also increase attendance and engagement.
  • Think about alcohol: Consider the possibility of holding an event where no alcohol is served, or setting limits on the amount of alcohol (or at least free alcohol) available, encouraging responsible consumption. Although an alcohol-free event may seem somewhat drastic, recent statistics indicate that approximately 20% of the population is teetotal and that this figure is increasing among young people. Such an approach may not, therefore, be as unwelcome as one may think, although it would be advisable to get people’s views before taking such a step. Even if employees want an “open-bar”, provision of this may send the wrong message and encourage excessive drinking, increasing the risk of inappropriate behaviour.
  • Pre-event communications: Send out communications to all staff in advance of the party/event reminding them of the standards of behaviour expected and stating that inappropriate behaviour will be dealt with via the relevant disciplinary policy (possible consequences including disciplinary sanctions up to and including dismissal). Also draw attention to other relevant policies, such as any anti-bullying and harassment policy, equality, diversity and inclusion policy, etc. Although some may accuse employers of being a killjoy in doing this, it is worth doing so to make sure expectations are “front of mind”.
  • Reminders about social media: Draw attention to the company’s social media policy (if there is one) and, even if there is no such policy in place, remind staff about the consequences of bringing the employer into disrepute through social media posts demonstrating inappropriate behaviour (i.e. the likelihood of disciplinary action which could result in dismissal).
  • Consider appointing “sober chaperones”: That is, members of management who will commit to staying at the event from beginning to the end, who will not consume alcohol and will watch out for and intervene in any inappropriate behaviour and try to ensure, so far as possible, that everyone gets home safely. It was reported last year that some professional services firms were introducing a policy of doing this and we suspect more employers will follow.

Finally, it is also worthy of note that there has been a societal culture shift over recent years in what is seen to be appropriate or acceptable behaviour. What may have been acceptable 10-15 years ago, may be seen as overstepping the line in today’s world. It is important to be mindful of this and for managers in particular to appreciate (and be reminded) that with seniority comes higher expectations regarding standards of behaviour, even in informal/social occasions in the workplace. Employers may want to consider putting in place specific training as to expected standards of conduct at work, including at informal/social occasions such as the Christmas party. We would recommend that such training is specifically targeted at those with managerial responsibilities. It is not about being a grinch but about being aware of risks inherent to the imbalance of power at play.