Christmas parties may seem like the ideal opportunity for organisations to allow their staff to let their hair down and dance the night away with their colleagues. That said, alcohol consumption, coupled with a relaxed social atmosphere, can foster situations which may not occur in the every-day office. Although such social gatherings are fundamentally a social and fun occasion they are also, as official company-organised events, an extension of the working environment.
Legally, organisations have a duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees. By extension, they can be liable for actions committed by employees in the course of their employment if they cannot demonstrate they took ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent it. This includes forms of misconduct at company-organised events. In other words, if employees behave in an inappropriate, aggressive or dangerous manner whilst at the party, the organisation may be responsible for their actions.
Organisations can also be liable for misconduct that takes place within ‘after party drinks’. Although these are technically not officially organised by the company, liability can still arise if it can be established that the employee’s conduct was sufficiently connected to their position. An example of this was seen in the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited, where a manager had punched one of his employees in the face after they, along with some colleagues, had gone for further drinks at a local hotel when the Christmas party concluded. The Court of Appeal found that the company was liable for the actions of the manager as, although this occurred in an after party, all drinks and taxis had been paid for by the company and the manager was acting within his management capacity.
Whilst organisations will want staff to have fun on the night, provisions should be in place to ensure behaviour doesn’t get out of hand. To this end, it is highly advisable to implement a policy which addresses office parties and work-related social events, outlining that staff have a duty to behave responsibly at all times. It is also advisable to issue individuals with a reminder that the organisation’s rules on acceptable behaviour will still apply at the event and that incidents of misconduct will be treated seriously. If an employee claims they have been harassed by a colleague, swift action should be taken to deal with it in line with policy.