11 September 2019

Office Parties: The Dos and Don’ts

With employers placing increasing importance on social wellbeing in the workplace, noticeably more firms are hosting parties outside of the festive season, often as a more inclusive alternative to the Christmas party, as well as offering the usual yule-tide celebrations.

Whatever the time of year, much like the unpredictability of the British weather, free-flowing alcohol and a perceived relaxation of workplace boundaries can lead to employees (and management) behaving in an undesirable way.

What are the risks to employees?

Employees can be quick to forget that they remain bound by the obligations in their employment contract during work events. The office party should be considered as an extension of the workplace, and the usual high standard of conduct is expected. Workplace policies will also still apply, and employers should remind employees of this prior to the party.

The lines of professional conduct are too often blurred in social settings, and employees could find themselves facing disciplinary action, which could ultimately lead to dismissal. Employment Tribunals have seen examples of cases which include inappropriate behaviour, harassment and damage to company property that has taken place during work parties.

What are the risks to employers?

Employers can be held vicariously liable for the wrongful acts of employees committed ‘in the course of employment’. These boundaries have been stretched over recent years, and a party organised and paid for by the employer is likely to invite the risk of vicarious liability, regardless of its location.

Employers could face a constructive dismissal claim if a rogue manager drinks too much and decides to tell his team what he really thinks of them or promises a pay rise that is forgotten about the next morning. Generally, employers and management should try to limit discussion about commercially sensitive topics.

Let’s not forget about the ‘after party’. Employers are not relieved of risk just because the workforce has left the event. In 2018, the Court of Appeal found an employer liable for its Managing Director’s actions in drunkenly assaulting an employee during impromptu drinks at a hotel bar, post-Christmas party. This risk is harder to control, and there will be a number of factors which affect liability, but employers should keep a watchful eye on any intoxicated employees at closing time.

How can employers protect themselves, and their employees?

Most parties will pass without incident, and cases in the Employment Tribunals arising out of work events are the exception, rather than the rule.

However, there are ways employers can mitigate the risk of HR nightmares ahead of time. These include:

  • Be sure to invite all staff, including those on maternity leave or absent for other reasons, so that the event is fully inclusive and reaches a wider number of employees.
  • Check that the relevant workplace policies are up to date and circulate them to employees, reminding them of their obligations and that they remain bound by their terms and conditions of employment at the event. For more risk averse employers, a social events policy could be introduced. Social media and privacy policies will also be particularly relevant if employees are likely to be posting on social media.
  • Control the amount of alcohol available and provide plenty of food and soft drinks.
  • Keep HR on hand and ensure you have first aid trained employees.
  • Remind management to avoid discussing sensitive topics, such as pay or bonuses, or office gossip.
  • Consider combining the event with a CSR cause, such as fundraising for a chosen charity. This can create a positive environment, ensure that local initiatives can be supported, and can mean that employees are less likely to misbehave given the nature of the event.

The Shulmans Employment team has extensive experience in providing HR and employment law advice for organisations. Please get in touch with any member of the team if you would like to know more or to discuss how we can help support you.

Note: A version of this article first appeared in People Management - 'The risks of throwing an office summer party and how to avoid them', 21 August 2019.