It is that time of year again, when employers in the UK offer staff a Christmas party. Unfortunately some managers are faced, the day after the Christmas party, with a range of grievances and disciplinary problems which can ultimately result in legal liability for their employer.

But it was outside of work: Not my problem?

Although Christmas parties are often off site, in a bar or restaurant, UK case law has established that there is usually sufficient connection between the Christmas party and the workplace to mean that misbehaviour at the Christmas party can land the employer with a Tribunal or court claim. Employers are held to be “vicariously liable” for the acts of their employees. This means that, even if the employers are unaware or would certainly not condone the bad behaviour, they could still be sued.

Common problems arising from the Christmas Party

The following are frequently reported to the RMIF legal advice line:-

  • Absence/lateness: Employees are often late or absent the following day. Employers will have a choice as to whether they are festively lenient, or treat any such problems as they usually would, by way of formal or informal disciplinary.
  • Misconduct issues: There is nothing like free alcohol to encourage petty niggles and disagreements between employees to grow into full-blown hostility and misconduct issues.
  • Harassment: Remember that harassment has a very wide legal definition and can involve verbal or non verbal or physical conduct. Conduct can also constitute harassment if it has the effect of violating another person’s dignity and therefore an intention to harass is not necessary. One employee’s ‘harmless banter’ is another employee’s ticket to the Tribunal.
  • Issues with religious belief: Don’t forget that not all of your employees will necessarily celebrate Christmas and employers need to be careful to ensure that those of different religious persuasions are not treated less favourably, or comments made, if they choose not to partake in what is, essentially, a traditional Christian festival.

Tips for Employers

It is up to employers to set the rules. Clear communication in advance regarding what is and what is not expected is the most useful advice that can be given. Employers could, for example, set out in a memo or email, expected levels of behaviour and potential sanctions for non-compliance; not that this has to be done in a particularly miserly way! A gentle reminder included in details about the party will often suffice. Employees could also be reminded to re-read the sections of the handbook regarding equal opportunities and/or anti-harassment policies.

To end on a positive note, remember that the Christmas party can be a morale boosting social event which many employees look forward to. Whilst there can be problems, the vast majority of them are enjoyable events. A little preparation can make sure yours is as well.

As always, this advice is general in nature and will need to be tailored to any one particular situation. As an RMI member you have access to the RMI Legal advice line, as well as a number of industry experts for your assistance. Should you find yourself in the situation above, contact us at any stage for advice and assistance as appropriate.

Motor Industry Legal Services

Motor Industry Legal Services (MILS Solicitors) provides fully comprehensive legal advice and representation to UK motor retailers for one annual fee. It is the only law firm in the UK which specialises in motor law and motor trade law. MILS currently advises over 1,000 individual businesses within the sector as well as the Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMI) and its members.