Before the party 

Employers should ensure that their equal opportunities and harassment policies extend to office social events as well as conduct during working time. Such policies should give examples of what constitutes unacceptable behaviour, explain why such conduct will not be tolerated and make it clear that inappropriate behaviour will have disciplinary consequences which may mean dismissal. Having effective policies will also assist in defending any claim as there is a statutory defence where the employer can show that it took all reasonable steps to prevent employees from committing discriminatory acts including harassment.

Policies should be properly communicated to staff. Merely having policies buried in a staff handbook or on the intranet is insufficient. It is a good idea to remind managers and staff before a specific social function of the policies. This will mean that they are in no doubt where the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable conduct lie and the consequences of overstepping the mark.

Do not pressurise members of staff to attend the party. Some employees may not feel comfortable attending an event which is linked to a Christian festivity and others may have family or caring responsibilities which mean that they are not able to attend.

All aspects of the festivities should be considered and employers should be alive to the sensitivities of their employees. Accessibility of the venue to anyone with a disability should be considered. Remember that other non-Christian festivals - such as Hanukkah - fall at this time of year and, whilst the most common decorations such as Christmas trees, tinsel and fairy lights are generally accepted as traditional rather than religious, care should be taken to avoid causing offence with overtly religious symbols of Christmas. Although non-religious, mistletoe should be avoided for obvious reasons! Ask employees to specify their dietary requirements beforehand and ensure that those with dietary restrictions for religious or other reasons are offered food that is as appealing as that served to fish and meat eaters. Secret Santa gifts should also be designed to raise a smile and not cause offence or embarrassment to the recipient or others.

During the party

Alcohol is often at the root of problems and it should be stressed that, although employees are not expected to remain sober, they will not be able to use inebriation as an excuse for inappropriate conduct. Christmas parties are notorious for incidents of flirting or sexual innuendo going too far. Employers may face complaints from individuals who change their minds about what is acceptable or not once they sober up and can also expect those who drink responsibly or abstain completely to have a pretty good recollection of what they saw or experienced.

Think carefully about providing unlimited drinks or putting a credit card behind the bar. In one case, three employees who ended up in a drunken, abusive and violent state at a free bar provided by their employer (after a seminar on improving behavioural skills!) won their claim for unfair dismissal because the Tribunal took the view that, by providing a free bar, their employer had contributed to their behaviour. Ensuring that sufficient non-alcoholic drinks are available to those not wishing to drink will help to encourage sensible drinking and avoid offending anyone who chooses not to consume alcohol on religious or other grounds. Make sure that there is plenty of food to accompany the alcohol! It may also be advisable to appoint certain managers to keep their ears and eyes open for individuals who may be getting drunk and should be asked to leave the party or at least to moderate their behaviour. In the event of any serious incident arising, it may be appropriate to suspend the individuals involved pending an investigation the next working day.

About 10 years ago, an employee made a claim to an employment tribunal that his manager had made a promise at a company Christmas party that his salary would be doubled in the next two years. His pay did not increase and so he resigned and claimed unfair dismissal. The claim failed on the grounds that there was no intention that the “promise” should be legally binding. However, it should be remembered that this was not an inevitable result. Managers should be advised not to discuss career potential or remuneration with their staff at social events as words of good intention can end up creating legally binding obligations.

After the party

Bear in mind that the employer’s duty of care may extend beyond the event itself. It may be appropriate to remind employees that they should not drive after the party if they have consumed alcohol and “after party” events should be avoided. Depending on location, the provision of coaches or assistance with taxi costs may be a solution.

Despite putting in place sound preventative measures, employers may nevertheless find themselves on the receiving end of complaints/grievances after the event. It is important to ensure that complaints are considered fairly and in accordance with ACAS-compliant grievance and disciplinary procedures. If disciplinary action is taken, it will be necessary to consider any mitigating factors as well as any aggravating factors such as where harassment involves aggression or where it is directed towards someone in a more junior position. Remember that failure to deal with grievances properly and in accordance with the company’s procedures could lead to a claim in an employment tribunal for discrimination, harassment and/or constructive dismissal. - See more at: