December 6, 2016

Beware The Legal Pitfalls Of The Office Christmas Party

Written by Stuart Atherton

With the festive season upon us, it’s a time of year that can sometimes result in at best, an embarrassing apology but at worst, a legal case in the New Year. The grey area surrounding Christmas parties is “who is legally responsible?”, especially if the party takes place out of normal hours and away from the workplace.
For the sake of clarity, the position is that if there is a work connection as to the social event then the liability for any damages, insults or discrimination for any workforce misdemeanours stands a good chance of landing at the employer’s door for compensation!
However, a recent High Court decision has attempted to provide some guidance as to where the proverbial line for such liability, may be drawn. The effect of this, of course, would be for the responsibility for any compensation to stay with the perpetrator rather than being separately shared with the Employer. Needless to say , usually the employer business makes a wealthier target than the individual concerned!
The case concerned a company director and other members of staff who decided to continue drinking at the hotel bar after the party had ended. The party took place without incident at a golf club and then half of the guests (which included staff partners) went on to a hotel were some of the guests were staying. The company (through it’s director) paid for the party, paid for the taxi fares to and from the party for the guests, paid for the taxis to the hotel and paid for the drinks. It was expected that the Company would pay for at least some of the drinks at the hotel.
Later in the evening a work related controversial issue arose and the director stated to the employees present as to how he owned the Company and made the decisions. When challenged by an employee, the director lost his temper and punched the employee twice causing him to fall and sustain brain injury.
Having considered the finely balanced issues carefully, the Judge decided that there had to be a limit to the Company’s liability and that the range and duration of the liability should not be considered as arising solely that the director was out in the company of employees. An important part of the deliberations related to the fact that there was a “temporal and substantive difference” between the Christmas party and the impromptu drinks party.
This is a high court decision and there are other decisions that would suggest that a cautious approach should still be taken when preparing for the office party. Bearing in mind the likely damages concerned in this case, it is likely that this decision will be appealed but in our opinion, the starting point should always be that the employer is likely to be liable for the employee’s misconduct if there is a connection between the social event and employment.
The link does not need to be extensive and as such “educating “ the staff as to the expectations of behaviour and the potential consequences of misbehaviour always represents good practice. A standing policy on such matters (reinforced at appropriate times of the year) is always a good idea.
If you require any guidance or advice on the above issues raised or any employment law, HR and business related issues, always contact Stuart Atherton and the employment team at Peter Lynn and Partners (01792 450010) or [email protected], who will be happy to assist further .