A quick reminder of staff ‘do’s’ and ‘don’t’s at work Christmas parties could be all that’s needed to protect businesses as well as employees, a leading solicitor has claimed.
Lindsey Knowles, Head of Employment Law at Kirwans law firm, is urging managers to circulate a friendly email to their workforce in the run-up to the event in order to ensure individuals understand what is expected in terms of conduct – and to consider what plans the firm could put in place to avoid any issues.
Lindsey said: “Christmas parties are a great opportunity for workers to let their hair down, have a few drinks, and enjoy a bit of down time with colleagues outside of the workplace.
“However, once the drink starts flowing all sorts of problems can emerge, and if the event is in any way connected to work then the firm may end up bearing the brunt.”
The advice comes at a time when there is often an upsurge in employees seeking legal advice following work-related festivities.
And, Lindsey says, while no-one wants to be a Christmas killjoy, it is important for employers to realise that they can leave themselves wide open to claims of vicarious liability if they fail to take proactive moves to prevent incidents that could be described as harassment or in any way as ‘discriminatory’ from occurring.
Lindsey said: “These precautions don’t need to be over-the-top or heavy-handed; doing something as simple as reviewing discrimination and conduct policies and ensuring employees are aware of what they are could make all the difference when it comes to the safety of their staff. And, if incidences do happen, the fact that employers have been proactive in their measures to try and protect their staff will be an important factor in any defence.”
While sexual harassment tends to be the most common complaint, claims about problematic behaviour on the grounds of sexual orientation, race, religion, age, gender reassignment and disability can occur too.
Legal action can also be taken against firms in cases involving assaults between employees and drink driving.
The issue of vicarious liability – which can see an employer being held responsible for the acts or omissions of its employees, provided it can be shown that they took place in the course of their employment – was brought to the fore in 2018 in Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, which saw the managing director Mr Major assault an employee, who then went on to claim traumatic brain damage.
The High Court initially found that the firm was not liable for the actions of Mr Major, but when the decision was challenged at the Court of Appeal, it resulted in the ruling that Northampton Recruitment Ltd was indeed responsible.
Lindsey said: “It’s natural for employers to want to really treat their staff, but it’s not necessarily a good thing to ply them with free booze. Instead, consider tools such as drinks tokens that will limit their alcohol while still enabling you to buy them a few drinks.
“In addition, if you are serving alcohol, make sure that food is available to try and prevent staff from drinking on an empty stomach.
“A carefully-worded email sent to all staff the day before the event is usually a great way to remind them about their expected behaviour at the party, the work start time the following day, and recommendations on the safest and easiest ways to travel home.
“By taking some precautionary measures, there is no reason why the Christmas party shouldn’t be good fun for everyone – with no nasty employment claim hangovers.”