Posted on 5th December 2007

Avoiding the Legal Hangover of the Office Party

Latimer Hinks is warning the regions employers not to fall foul of the law during the office Christmas party season. Recent research* has found that nine out of ten bosses are vetoing the Christmas party in order to avoid the legal implications that may follow. A survey of 3,500 businesses found that 89% have received a harassment complaint after a work party. Nick Poole, partner at the Darlington law firm has put together a guide to avoiding common legal pitfalls, to help make the office do one to remember for all the right reasons.

  • Be careful not to breach the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003. Office parties tend to revolve around alcohol and this may offend certain religions. In addition, a party on a Friday night may exclude certain faiths. It is best not to insist that all staff attend the party.
  • Ensure that the catering is suitable for people of all faiths and meets dietary requirements, such as vegetarians or vegans.
  • A free bar can be a recipe for disaster. Non-alcoholic drinks should be made available for those who dont drink, for drivers and to keep consumption levels down.
Nick commented: Employers are vicariously liable for their employees behaviour if it takes place in the course of employment. This can include Christmas parties, even if they are held away from the office. Three employees of Whitbread got drunk and then fought at a seminar. They were dismissed as a result of this but successfully argued that this was unfair dismissal. A relevant factor was that the employer had provided a free bar, and therefore condoned the behaviour.
  • Do not encourage underage drinking. Ensure everyone consuming alcohol is over 18.
  • Sexual harassment is an obvious risk. Harassment policies should be in place and re-enforced to staff to ensure that they fully understand that inappropriate comments or behaviour is unacceptable.
Nick said: Harassment cases can be very expensive. At one party, a male colleague pulled down a female workers dress and made disparaging comments. In this case 10,000 was awarded in damages for injury to feelings.
  • An office party is not an appropriate place for a performance review. Do not make promises, particularly under the influence of alcohol as these may be contractually binding.
  • ACAS suggests employers have a duty to consider how their employees get home. Consider organising transport to stop the possibility of staff driving home over the limit.
  • Warn employees that gossip and photos from the Christmas party appearing on social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace will be frowned upon, especially if it is detrimental to the company.
Nick said: It is not surprising that many bosses are shying away from office Christmas parties but with a little thought and planning there is no reason why everyone cannot get together an enjoy a fun night out with colleagues. ENDS * Peninsula Buiness Services research