Office Christmas Party: Recipe for legal disaster?

office christmas party

“What I don’t like about office Christmas parties is looking for a job the next day.” Phyllis Dyer, The Office (US).

A corner stone of industrialised work life, the office Christmas party is an event that is familiar to many and continually referenced in popular culture. However, it isn’t renowned just for its pleasantness but also for all the things that can typically go wrong. From staff members getting drunk and singing terribly to the rest of staff (Bridget Jones anybody?) to European terrorists crashing the party (Die Hard), the possibilities are endless. The office Christmas party is a gold mine for story tellers, writers and gossips, but to a solicitor it is a cesspool of law suits waiting to happen. Employers need to take extra care as they can potentially run the risk of being liable for their staff’s behaviour during the Christmas party, especially if it is held during working hours and on business premises. That’s why here at Needle we scoured through past legal cases to find the best tips for employers planning their office Christmas party this year:

  • If the party occurs within normal working hours, wages can potentially be deducted from employees who fail to attend (unless of course they do not attend because they are engaged in other duties). However, do not put pressure on an employee to attend if he/she does not want to due to their religious beliefs.
  • Employers can have vicarious liability for the behaviour of their employees whilst they are considered to be working. Be very careful if giving them alcohol!
  • Mistletoe is a sexual harassment case waiting to happen. Consider banning it.
  • Christmas parties are treated for the employer’s tax purposes as a cost of staff welfare and are deductible as a business expense.
  • Managers should avoid discussing career potential or remuneration with subordinates at company social events because words of encouragement and good intentions can end up being misinterpreted and accepted as a legally binding commitment.
  • Have it on a Friday. It is unrealistic for an employer to have great expectations of productivity if alcohol has been provided to employees the night before.
  • Be careful with any employees who are minors. This means do not offer them alcohol!
  • If someone disappears with another employee to a hotel room and subsequently announces they are pregnant, the HR team should not gossip about this with other employees (yes – this is a real case!).

So amongst all this, do you even have to, by law, organise some sort of celebratory event? No. However just like brussel sprouts or Christmas pudding, we endure it for the sake of tradition. Just be clear on what the expectations are of staff’s behaviour.

Alternatively, try a more distracting activity based office Christmas celebration such as those suggested by the Londonist.


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