Employers beware of post-Christmas party employment claims

Businesses are urged to remind employees of the standards of behaviour at work Christmas parties to avoid employment claims.

Businesses celebrating Christmas with a staff party should be aware of the potential employment claims that can go hand in hand with the festivities, warns law firm Hodge Jones & Allen.

Rhian Radia, head of employment law at Hodge Jones & Allen says, ‘The three months after the Christmas period can be a busy time for employment claims lawyers and many issues arise as a result of events during the festive season.

‘The majority of claims that we see are for harassment and are usually based on inappropriate comments made. We have also advised on dismissals for gross misconduct, where fights have broken out between employees, or where employees have managed to offend clients or customers who came to the party and damaged an employer’s reputation.’

Last week, the High Court ruled that a company was not liable for injuries caused by an employee after a work Christmas party ended. The case came about after a manager was assaulted by a director following their work Christmas party in December 2011.

He was part of a group of staff that continued to celebrate at a different location and after the official party had ended. The manager sustained a serious brain injury and sought compensation from his employer and their insurer.

The judge decided that although work was the cause of a heated argument between the manager and director, a line could be drawn between the work party and the ‘impromptu drinks’, which he saw as not occurring in the course of the employment.

The judge ruled that the company could have been liable if the blow had been struck during the Christmas party itself. However, given the assault happened in a hotel during a private drinking session after the official party had ended, the company was not ‘vicariously liable’.

Employers can still be liable to employment claims

Rhian Radia says, ‘There are clear lessons to learn from this ruling. Companies need to be clear with employees about behaviour expectations but also when parties start and finish. By doing this they are protecting their business and their staff.

‘Often, a light-hearted but carefully-worded email to staff on the day of the party can sometimes be all that is needed to ensure employees have fun – and stay on the right side of employment law.’

Rhian says the email should remind staff that while the event is fun and outside work hours, employees are still representatives of the company and need to bear this in mind. In law, the party is effectively an extension of the workplace and behaviour needs to reflect this.

Be clear about what time the party starts and ends, and if there is a free bar, the time that this will close. Advise of nearest transport links or provide details of a local licensed cab firm so that employees can plan how they will get home.

Advise of any clients or customers who are attending the event and the importance of their business to the company.

State what time work starts the next day (if the party is mid-week). For companies that expect staff to be in at the usual time, a reminder about this should be circulated with a suggestion about taking unused annual leave if a lie in after the Christmas party is contemplated.

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