Tis the season to dust off the tinsel and tiaras, buff the shoes and gloss the nails – yes, the highly anticipated annual office Christmas party season is upon us once again.
While most parties will be an occasion for employers and employees to celebrate the passing of the year in a spirit of good cheer and celebration, it’s hardly a surprise that, given the festive mood, the availability of alcohol and the risk of over-indulgence, it can also give rise to incidents which have HR and employment law ramifications.
Both employers and employees should be aware of these risks. While the Christmas party rarely takes place in the workplace, it is a work event. The ‘official’ Christmas party, paid for by the employer, is usually regarded for legal purposes as an extension of the workplace. Unacceptable behaviour by employees can lead to grievances, allegations of harassment, disciplinary proceedings and dismissals, and employers can potentially be found vicariously liable for poor behaviour by employees.
How should employers deal with incidents that may occur? Work related misconduct by employees is typically dealt with by way of disciplinary proceedings which should be consistent with the Acas Code relevant to disciplinary matters and the employer’s own procedures. In particular, employers should ensure that any disciplinary issues are handled fairly and that a fair disciplinary procedure is followed. Overreactions and heat of the moment decisions should be avoided.
Employers must also act consistently. In the case of Westlake v ZSL London Zoo two zoo keepers who were the current and former romantic partners of another keeper brawled at the Christmas party. Ms Westlake allegedly attacked her colleague with a wine glass, and her colleague, who declined to turn the other cheek, fought back, injuring Ms Westlake. ZSL subsequently took disciplinary proceedings against both. It dismissed Ms Westlake and issued a final written warning to her colleague. Ms Westlake brought a Tribunal claim for unfair dismissal on the grounds that her treatment was inconsistent with that of her colleague. She succeeded because the Tribunal found that there was insufficient evidence about who initiated the fisticuffs for ZSL to treat Ms Westlake more severely than her colleague and that her dismissal was therefore unfair. However, it was a hollow victory for Ms Westlake as the Tribunal also found that had the employer treated both employees consistently it could have dismissed both and it therefore declined to award any compensation.
So where do an employer’s responsibilities end? It is usually the case that, while an official party is regarded as an extension of the workplace, employees who have gone on for further impromptu drinks at an ‘unofficial’ gathering would not be regarded as attending an occasion with a sufficiently close connection with work to render the employer vicariously liable for any acts of the participants.
Each case will turn on its own facts, however. The case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited illustrates this. In that case, following the Christmas party a group of employees retired to a hotel where further drinks were paid for by the company. The company’s managing director (who was also the company’s owner) and another senior employee fell into dispute while discussing work matters. The managing director punched the employee, who suffered a serious brain injury and subsequently issued a claim against the company. The particular circumstances of the case led the High Court to conclude that there was a sufficient connection with employment for the company to be held liable for the managing director’s actions at the event even though it was not part of a work party.
No employer wishes to play Scrooge or wag the finger or seek to dampen the spirits of employees looking forward to a festive party. However, a common sense reminder to employees of expectations regarding behaviour ahead of an event will not go amiss and is perhaps a prudent step for employers so as to ensure that things go with a swing, rather than a thump.