Any company-organised office party, whether in or out of working hours and on or off site, is an extension of the workplace which can test a business across the board on its policies and attitudes.
“It’s a real stress-test for the culture of the business and its employment policies,” explained Irina Polyakova, employment expert from Eaton Smith Solicitors. “Each year we see another significant case reaching the courts arising from an incident at a work party. Often the focus is on creating a morale-boosting and team-building event, and that’s important, but staff need to know the boundaries and what is acceptable behaviour if companies are to safeguard against a difficult morning after.”
One big headache for employers is the risk of being held vicariously liable for the misconduct of their employees at such events. In the latest case, Shelbourne v Cancer Research UK, an employee suffered serious back injuries after an over-excited colleague lifted her up at a work party, lost his balance and dropped her to the floor. She claimed negligence on the part of her employers, pointing to the presence of alcohol and its impact on behaviour.
While in that case, the company was able to demonstrate that rigorous risk assessments had been undertaken, and the court ruled there was insufficient connection between her colleague’s work role and their actions at the party, such cases are complex and the outcome can be very different.
In the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, an employee was left with long term brain injuries when the managing director hit him after a fight broke out. Despite the assault happening at an unplanned ‘after-party’, the company was found liable for the assault when the case reached the Court of Appeal, with the judge ruling that the senior nature of the role of managing director created a position of authority that was held around the clock.
Irina added: “To protect staff, it’s important that companies take the necessary steps to assess and guard against potential risks, including setting out expected standards of behaviour, limiting the amount of alcohol and having a clear boundary for when the event will close.
“Aggression and sexual harassment are the most common forms of misconduct at such events, something no organisation wants to see happening at what is supposed to be a festive celebration, and either of which can lead to substantial claims for compensation, with the associated damage to a company’s reputation.”
Christmas Party checklist: