Weekly dilemma: Work Christmas parties

I’m organising our company’s Christmas party, which is normally pretty boisterous. Are there any employment law pitfalls that I need to watch out for?

The company is likely to have the same legal responsibility for what happens during the Christmas party as its does during working hours in the office, but, with planning and clear communication, the pitfalls can be minimised or avoided altogether.

Health and safety is one important consideration. As with most health and safety issues, assessment of the risk before the event is crucial: both to reduce the risk of accidents or injuries and to help defend a claim should the worst happen. It is sensible to have one or more managers designated to drink no alcohol and to keep an eye out for, and nip in the bud, any unacceptable or potentially dangerous behaviour. You might want to limit the amount of alcohol available, or at least limit the free bar. You should also give some thought to steps that you can take to ensure that staff will get home safely.

The other main legal issues are harassment and other types of discrimination. Harassment is defined broadly as any unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating dignity or creating a hostile or intimidating environment, where the conduct occurs on the grounds of sex, race, disability, sexual orientation, religion, age or belief. Even one relatively minor comment may amount to unlawful harassment, and the risk of harassment occurring almost certainly increases when colleagues are drinking.

Other forms of discrimination are less obvious. It is possible for an employer to be liable for harassment by third parties where the employer knows that there has been, and has failed to take action about, harassment by the same person in the past. Third-party harassment may be relevant if, for example, clients or suppliers are also invited to the party.

You should consider and cater to the needs of everyone who will be attending the party to avoid discrimination. This includes ensuring that there is food that meets employees’ religious and cultural requirements and sufficient non-alcoholic drinks, and considering any physical assistance or adjustments for disabled staff.

It is undoubtedly sensible, before the party, to remind staff of behaviour that is, and is not, acceptable, without sounding like too much of a killjoy. This could include the point that staff will still be representing the company when at the party, and a reference to your harassment or discrimination policy – as well as wishing everyone a merry Christmas!

David Brown, associate, Simpson Millar LLP

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