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Colleagues clinking champagne glasses at an office Xmas party
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How to be office party ready this Christmas

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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.

4th Dec 2023
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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.

Replies (14)

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By Justin Bryant
04th Dec 2023 12:14

The pub golf should have had a "no lightweights" warning/policy.

In the big scheme of things it's probably a lot safer than the firm's annual skiing trip (or skiing generally - that ironically did for Michael Schumacher after years of high risk F1 racing).

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By DJKL
04th Dec 2023 14:16

Also did for a big four partner, I recall, something inappropriate perhaps happened on a skiing trip.

Right- laws of unexpected consequences with a Christmas Party, a true story.

A long time ago the small firm I was then with (late 80s/early 90s) booked their Christmas night out on the Barge at Ratho, you got on, sailed along the canal, got served a meal, drinks, came back in to mooring, mini bus back to town.

Now this was a small firm, two partners, about 8 staff. Things started well but somehow the barge went aground and we had to wait until water level lifted, meantime the drink kept flowing for more hours than expected, a lot was imbibed.

So, circa 2 hours later than expected we disembarked, got in the minibus, got dropped in the town and headed home.

The next day some of us learned our senior partner had got home but apparently vomited in his bed, his other half thereafter was not very trusting of any of us, apparently we, the staff, had led him astray. Suffice to say only four of the ten actually made the office the next day, I was one but am not sure what productive work, if any, I actually got through.

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By Postingcomments
04th Dec 2023 14:55

Button on the DJKL juke box pressed. Story comes out. ;)

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By Justin Bryant
04th Dec 2023 15:21

That's nothing. When I was a trainee, a fellow trainee vomited on the senior partner's office carpet after a Xmas do. He was forgiven and is now himself a senior partner in a top 50 firm.

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By DJKL
05th Dec 2023 11:40

At a training course at Warwick Uni (Hodgson Impey, circa 1985/1986), somebody after the last night bash, threw up on their bedclothes, put them in a bath in the bathroom off the hallway, turned on taps and evidently forgot all about them . I woke in the halls of residence at circa 7.30, put my feet on the ground in my room and discovered they were wet, floor was swimming with water, the entire corridor/landing was awash and like a waterfall the water was merrily cascading down the stairwell.

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By Roland195
04th Dec 2023 15:32

"Now, a few more details about this year's company picnic.
Its at the plant, no food will be served...
the only activity will be work, and the picnic is canceled"

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By FactChecker
04th Dec 2023 20:41

Reminds me of the bunch of grumps (software developers of course) who downed tools when they discovered that rejecting the party invite didn't automatically lead to a cash equivalent bonus!

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By mkowl
05th Dec 2023 09:59

Basically the woke generation killing anything fun related. Following a recent office move we found some old photos of Christmas parties. I foolishly showed the current Mrs MKowl the picture of me with 4 female employees draped over me. The older ones before my time were certainly of their era.

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By Jdopus
05th Dec 2023 14:49

Sounds to me like it has a lot more to do with older generations taking expensive legal cases against their employers for events that occurred while drinking than it has to do with the "woke generation".

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By Mr J Andrews
05th Dec 2023 10:41

You can provide all the help and advice gained through HR training but the stark reality of a free bar at the annual Xmas bash - or any other function for that matter -means another tip. A tip over the edge of sobriety. After which there's no guarantee of any pre-conceived idealogical safeguards.
Rather than encourage all and sundry the choice of drinking alcohol or not, perhaps a limit on the bar tab should be imposed. Curtailment of imbibery is very noticeable when one's own pocket is hit.
Furthermore it's the top end of the ladder which needs a bit of education and standard setting into what goes on - as evidenced by a certain Mr Cahill , formerly of Deloittes.

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By DJKL
05th Dec 2023 12:10

No idea these days but my wife's employers in the early 90s, an Investment Bank, seemed to have unlimited generosity. Some of the investment analysts (the part of the bank she was in) seemed to have business credit cards that could be really flexed, so maybe £3,000 stuck behind the bar at start of night but if that ran low another £2,000 or so then got deposited- drink what you want, spouses invited- I wondered if their approach was in any way related to the fact they never made any profits.

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By alejandra
08th Dec 2023 12:31

I torpedoed my career progression at a big accountancy firm at our Christmas party. I was sat at the same table as one of the partners, and she unwisely asked us all to guess how old she was. I knew she'd been a partner for at least 10 years and guessed her age accordingly. Unfortunately, it turned out she was the youngest partner that firm had ever had, and was a full 10 years younger than I guessed. For some reason she did not like me after that.

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By Roland195
08th Dec 2023 14:50

No offence but what kind of eejit would attempt to answer that question in any circumstances?

You didn't follow up with an opinion on "is she prettier than me?" did you?

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By DJKL
10th Dec 2023 14:20

Maybe the poster was not married- marriage teaches one that some questions are better never answered.

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