With the festive season upon us, employers will be treating their employees to parties of different shapes and sizes up and down the country.  A reason to rejoice you might say?  In most cases, yes, the Christmas party is a time of joviality and team bonding.  However, for some employers the Christmas festivities can leave a headache which lingers well into the new year.

The recent High Court case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd is a timely reminder that when Christmas celebrations go wrong, they can go very wrong, and although in this case the High Court found that the Company was not vicariously liable for its director’s actions, in many situations employers will be on the hook for actions by their employees at such events.

In Bellman, one of the Company directors punched an employee during a drinks session which followed the formal works Christmas party. The employee suffered brain damage and sued the Company on the basis that it was vicariously liable for the director’s actions. The question for the High Court in this case was whether the director was acting within the course of his employment when he punched Mr Bellman.

The High Court found that Northampton Recruitment was not vicariously liable for the director’s actions at the “impromptu” drinks session, even though the drinks session followed the official Christmas party, there were work people present at the drinks and the argument that preceded the violence was about work. The Court was satisfied there was an insufficient connection between the official works party and the spontaneous drinks which took place afterwards and that, therefore, the drinks session did not happen in the course of the employment.

So, good news for the employer here. However, it seems clear that, had the director committed the assault at the official works party, the Company would not have so easily escaped liability. While the virtues of bringing teams together to celebrate during the Christmas season usually outweighs the risks, it is worth giving some thought to how employers can minimise the risk of claims arising from the annual office party.

Some top tips to help avoid a lingering Christmas hangover:

  • Gently remind employees that a works party is an extension of the workplace and the usual rules and policies apply. Ideally, remind them that they are representing the business and this applies both to how they deal with colleagues, but also third parties (waiters, bar staff, entertainers etc.);
  • Consider referring to work parties expressly in equal opportunity and harassment policies and training, or even have a separate policy to deal with behaviour at work-related social events – if an employer can show it took reasonable steps to prevent negative behaviour this may help in defending a future claim;
  • If possible, avoid allowing excessive consumption of alcohol as this is what often leads to problems – limit the provision of free alcohol, provide tasty soft drink alternatives and end the party at a sensible hour;
  • When booking entertainment make sure it is suitable (employers have been held liable for sexist remarks made by entertainers at work events);
  • Make sure the event is accessible to all employees, for example ensure that disabled employees can access the location, or that the timing does not disproportionately disadvantage people with childcare responsibilities;
  • Consider any religious implications, for example Jewish employees may not be able to attend on a Friday evening, Sunday mornings may be difficult for Christian employees and parties during certain religious festivals could be avoided if any employees are likely to be fasting during this time. In addition, ensure that menus cater for different religious needs as some employees may be unable to eat certain foods or drink alcohol.

So, with all that in mind, we hope you have an uneventful but thoroughly enjoyable festive season.

To learn more about the issues in this article and how they may affect you, please get in touch.