Kate Palmer: Are employers responsible for what happens at the Christmas party?

Staff Christmas party

As we approach the festive season many companies are likely to have planned their annual Christmas party. Whilst festive social gatherings are usually very popular with the workforce, and can offer the chance to reward and engage with employees, they can also give rise to instances of poor behaviour from staff.

Alcohol consumption, coupled with a relaxed social atmosphere, can foster situations which may not occur in the every-day office, ranging from aggressive behaviour to more serious cases of discrimination and harassment. Although Christmas parties are fundamentally a social and fun occasion they are also, as official company-organised events, an extension of the working environment. In other words, if employees behave in an inappropriate, aggressive or dangerous manner whilst at the party, their employer may be responsible for their actions.

Legally, an employer has 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. For example, companies should have policies in place which set out the type of behaviour expected from employees and that which will be considered unacceptable. If an employee claims they are being harassed by a colleague the company is expected to take swift action to deal with it in line with their policy. An employee who is harassed may be able to seek compensation from their employer if it can be shown that the employer took no steps to try to prevent this behaviour. This is known as ‘vicarious liability’ and also extends to work-related social gatherings.

The rise of the ‘MeToo’ movement, which originated in October 2017 when Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of multiple counts of sexual misconduct, has seen a significant number of women across the globe come forward claiming to have been sexually harassed within a professional environment. If this was to occur within at a Christmas party, and is not properly managed or responded to by the employer, they could face claims of vicarious liability.

An employer should remember that this level of responsibility can also extend to ‘after party’ drinks. Although these are technically not officially organised by the company, it may still be liable for the actions of its employees if it can be established that their conduct is sufficiently connected to their position. An example of this is seen in the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited, where a manager had punched one of his employees in the face. 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.

Although Christmas parties are usually a positive way of motivating a workforce and a fun occasion for everyone involved, companies must ensure that their workers maintain certain standards of behaviour. A key element for employers to demonstrate that they are not vicariously liable for the behaviour of an employee is to have a robust anti-harassment and bullying stance including policies and training for employees on the effect of the policy.

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About Kate Palmer

Kate Palmer CIPD BA (Hons) is the Head of Advisory at Peninsula and a member of our senior leadership team.

With a specialist background in facilities management in the NHS (public and private sectors), Kate offers a wealth of employment law experience. She’s an expert negotiator; one notable case was with the NHS’s trade unions over terms and conditions in the Agenda for Change pay system.

Kate brings a drive and a passion for constant improvement to Peninsula; from the service to herself and the team. It’s a big part of what shaped the business into the centre of excellence it is today.

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