Author: Sadia Begum

The festive season is upon us once again, bringing with it the potential for a number of employment issues for employers and HR professionals. Whilst we do not propose to go through all of the do’s and don’ts of office Christmas parties, we have set out below a few notable cases to consider.

The office Christmas party is generally regarded as a good way of thanking staff for their hard work throughout the year and encouraging team camaraderie. However, due to the fact there are usually high levels of alcohol involved, there is always the risk of people acting inappropriately.

Employer not vicariously liable for Christmas fight

In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, it was determined that an assault which took place at an impromptu drinks gathering at the hotel was not an extension of the work Christmas party which had also taken place in the same hotel. This is despite the fact that the company was paying for at least some of the bill.  It was held that employees had voluntarily and independently taken part in this gathering which was unconnected with the company’s business and there was therefore insufficient connection between the employee’s employment and the assault for the employer to be vicariously liable.   

In this judgment, which many may view as surprising, the court held that the incident occurred at a unplanned post party drinks gathering as opposed to a work organised event (where there is an expectation that staff will attend). Nevertheless, employers should tread carefully and ensure that it is made clear to staff which events it is organising e.g. the start and finish times of work planned events to minimise their liability.  

Discussions on career progression

In the case of Judge v Crown Leisure Limited, an employee alleged that his manager had promised that his salary would be increased during a conversation at the office Christmas party. He subsequently resigned and claimed constructive dismissal on the grounds that the manager had broken a contractual promise. It was held by the EAT that the context of the conversation indicated that the manager did not intend to enter into any legally binding contractual commitment.  This case serves a reminder of the dangers of informal discussions, particularly where alcohol is involved, as words of encouragement and good intentions can easily end up being misinterpreted.

The dangers of gossiping

The case of Nixon v Ross Coates Solicitors provides employers with a useful reminder that it is important to act quickly to quash offensive rumours and gossip about employees. In this case, the identity of the father of an employee’s unborn child was the subject of office rumour and gossip.  This is because the employee concerned saw her kissing and leaving the office Christmas party with a male colleague who was not her partner.  The employee requested to be moved to a different office but her employer refused and she subsequently resigned and claimed constructive dismissal.  The EAT held that the gossiping about the paternity of the employee’s child amounted to pregnancy harassment and failing to agree to her request to be moved to a different office amounted to sex and pregnancy discrimination.  

Summary

Christmas parties can be good for morale but, as highlighted above, employers and HR professionals need to take care to ensure that their parties are memorable for the right reasons.  Staff should be reminded that they can be disciplined for their behaviour at work parties and what behaviour is considered to be unacceptable.   Should you require any support or guidance on how to best protect your business during the festive season, please do get in touch with a member of our team.