How to be office party ready this Christmasby
While Christmas parties can be an important part of the workplace social calendar, recent examples of bad behaviour have made some firms question their place in the modern business world. Employment law expert Owen Dear provides help and advice to avoid any tinsel-tinged turbulence at the office Christmas party.
Christmas can be a busy time in any profession, not least of all accountancy. Many businesses may be nearing the end of their financial year, tax returns are due in January, payroll often has to be completed early and practices can often be left to run with reduced numbers, with some employees taking a little early Christmas leave. So, by the time the office Christmas party arrives, some employees can be ready to blow off a little steam.
Most of us have heard stories over the years where light-hearted office fun tipped over to excess and bad behaviour, with the worst examples often finding their way into the media. For instance, the case of one employee, an auditor of PwC bringing a six-figure claim against his firm after suffering a terrible head injury on a work night out involving a pub golf drinking game.
In light of all of this, any employer might be forgiven for asking if there really is the time and inclination for a Christmas party. We all seemed to cope during the pandemic years when work Christmas parties were banned (outside of Westminster at least), but now they can take place again, is it even worth the risk?
There is an argument that Christmas parties are still an important part of the social well-being of any workplace. Although there is no reason why this needs to be unique to Christmas, they are an opportunity for employers to thank employees, celebrate the achievements of the past year, and help build morale and develop relationships in a way that is not possible during hybrid working when people can be in and out of the office at different times.
While of course there is also tax relief available on annual functions to which all employees are invited to attend: it is almost as if HMRC are encouraging the Christmas party!
Naturally, there can be risks involved with any work-social function, particularly where alcohol is available. It is well established and understood that employers are vicariously liable for the actions of their employees, and continue to owe them a duty of care, even at a social event such as a Christmas party. Another example of this was the case last year when the then vice chair of Deloitte left the business after a drunken incident at an event at Ascot, in which he is said to have made racist, sexist and bullying comments toward other members of staff.
These incidents involving the Big Four demonstrate that these things can happen to any business even those with the largest HR teams and tend to represent the exceptions rather than the rule. But as with any work that you might carry out at any other point in the year, employers should identify and manage that risk, and deal with things if they do go wrong.
Five tips to help be office party-ready
1. It is important to ensure that all employees are invited to attend the event. Employees should be free to choose not to attend without any pressure or recrimination, but no group or individual must feel excluded. Firms should ensure they invite employees who might be away from work on that particular day, including anyone on maternity or shared parental leave. They should also avoid clashing with other religious festivals or days for the chosen date and employees of other faiths should not be deterred on the basis that this is a Christmas party, and anyone is free to choose to drink alcohol or not.
2. Firms should complete a risk assessment of the whole event. Not only will this help identify and avoid potential problems, but it also helps to show that you have considered the risk and taken some action, even if something does go wrong.
3. Consider how employees are going to get home. There may be value in providing transport for employees to ensure they leave the venue on time and get home safely.
4. Remind employees that this is a work event, they are representing the business in public, and they will still be subject to the same standards of behaviour as they would at any work event and, where relevant, they are expected to attend work the following day. This could help to mitigate the risk of claims from other employees in a situation such as Deloitte could have faced after the comments made by their vice-chair. Firms such as BDO have even introduced sober chaperones before.
5. In the event of any reports of misconduct or inappropriate behaviour, these should be dealt with just like any other disciplinary matter. Failure to investigate or address any allegations of misconduct could result in a claim by the person making the allegations, but any rash action against the accused could equally lead to a claim from them.
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Owen trained and qualified in 2008 and worked in Cardiff and the City of London before returning to Oxfordshire to join Crossland Employment Solicitors in 2013.
Owen advises on all aspects of employment law, from day-to-day HR issues including disciplinary and grievance matters, to major commercial transactions involving transfers,...