Employers can be liable for poor staff behaviour at works parties

Christmas is a notoriously jovial time of the year; however excess alcohol consumption and the resulting lack of inhibition, among many other factors, can present great HR challenges.

It is vital employers remember that employment laws are applicable even where an event takes place outside of the workplace and working hours. Not only this, but employers can be held to be vicariously liable for the actions of their employees if those actions are deemed to have occurred in the “course of employment”.

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Laura Kearsley, partner and solicitor in the employment team at East Midlands-based law firm Nelsons, explains how employers can protect themselves against potential HR disasters.

“With the festive season now in full swing, it is more important than ever for employers to ensure their policies and procedures relating to work-related social events, disciplinary proceedings and equality of treatment are up-to-date and to remind employees of the need to familiarise themselves and comply with these.

“In order to protect themselves from being the subject of a vast array of potential claims, employers should be wary of the risks of harassment, misconduct, absenteeism, religious discrimination and unfair dismissal inherent during the Christmas festivities.”

What problems can arise?

“There are a number of potential liabilities for employers and their responsibilities during the festive season:

  1. Behaviour outside of working hours

“Social events away from the office involving employees either immediately after work or during an organised party fall within the remit of ‘course of employment’. Because of this, employers are likely to be vicariously liable for unacceptable behaviours, such as acts of sexual harassment.

“Other cases have illustrated the importance of monitoring and controlling the alcohol consumption and behaviour of employees. An employer who provided an unlimited free bar at an office party was held to have unfairly dismissed three employees for their resulting abusive and violent drunken behaviour.”

  1. Absence monitoring
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“Another issue that may arise during the Christmas period is that of unauthorised absences from work. Employers must make their policies and procedures regarding taking holiday and leave readily available to employees and must ensure that employees are aware of the notice periods required to be given.

“Where an employee takes unapproved leave, the employer must be careful not to impose a disproportionate sanction or they may risk being found to have unfairly dismissed the employee.

“In the event that an employee turns up late for work or does not turn up at all after an office Christmas party or social event, an employer is entitled to make the appropriate deductions from their wages provided there is provision for this in the employee’s contract of employment. Alternatively, the employee could be subjected to disciplinary action. Again, the employer must ensure their disciplinary policy is strictly adhered to and employees are aware that disciplinary action will be a consequence of lateness or absence.”

  1. Loose talk

“Christmas parties and work social events may also lead to inevitable workplace gossip. Employers may consider making it clear to employees that workplace gossip is likely to cause harm to another and may result in disciplinary action being taken.

“Discussing work-related matters – such as promotion or remuneration – at an office social event can also be dangerous. For example, a manager telling an employee they would be put on the same salary as another colleague within a period of two years could be taken as creating legally binding commitments where the intention to do so is found.”

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What steps can employers take to protect themselves?

“There are a number of practical steps employers should follow to avoid HR challenges:

  • “Do not insist that all staff attend the office Christmas party. Christmas is a Christian holiday, so do not pressure someone to attend if they do not want to on religious grounds. Be supportive and cater for those whose religious festivals and holidays fall at different times of the year
  • “Ensure the event is as inclusive as possible and caters for those who do not drink alcohol or eat certain foods
  • “Make it clear to employees what constitutes unacceptable behaviour and the consequences of such misbehaviour. Employees must be aware of boundaries
  • “Ensure employees are aware of what is expected of them regarding absence from work following the event
  • “Avoid having conversations with employees about performance, salary or career prospects while at the event. It has been known for promises made to an employee while under the influence of alcohol to be upheld by tribunals, even when the employer did not intend for this to be the case
  • “Appoint designated staff members to monitor the activities of staff during the course of the event to ensure the festivities do not get out of hand.”

Staying professional

“While Christmas and other office social events are a great method of encouragement, motivation and reward for employees for their hard work during working hours, employers must remain mindful and perceptive to the above and act sensibly and proportionately if and when issues do arise.”