Written by Colette Vance and

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It’s less than four weeks until Christmas and the Christmas party season is about to begin.  The office party is often a mixed blessing – an opportunity to boost morale and perhaps celebrate a successful year yet also a melting pot of workers letting their hair down, with potential for accidents, injuries, threats and claims.

It has long been established that employers are liable to for the acts of their employees which are done in the course of their employment. Work events, such as Christmas parties, have been found by tribunals to fall within the course of employment.  Employers can therefore find themselves liable for their employees inappropriate ‘banter’, attempts to chat up their colleagues or drunken behaviour in ensuing claims for discrimination, sexual harassment, personal injury and so on.

Liability for behaviour in impromptu ‘after-parties’ have often been considered to be more  nebulous.  However, organisations can still be liable for the actions of their employees as was shown in the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited.  Following a staff Christmas party, an unplanned after-party took place at a hotel bar.  The managing director of the company was present, along with the Claimant and others, and continued to pay for the majority of the drinks for his staff.  After a prolonged conversation about work matters, the managing director became irate about a challenge to his authority and sought to assert himself, resulting in him punching the Claimant in the head.  The Claimant sustained a fracture to his skull, resulting in traumatic brain damage.

Overturning the High Court’s decision, the Court of Appeal found that the company was vicariously liable for the managing director’s actions.  It held that the managing director’s remit was broad and that despite the time and place, he was purporting to act as the managing director of the company by asserting his authority as such at the time of the assault.

Although the facts of this case are somewhat unusual, this serves as a timely reminder that the acts of employees outside work (even in spontaneous after-parties) can still result in liability for the business.

Employers can help to protect themselves from liability by showing that they took all reasonable steps to prevent the behaviour.  Such steps should include: –

  • Ensuring bullying and harassment, equal opportunities and disciplinary policies are up to date
  • Emailing employees prior to the party to remind them that employment policies still apply during the party and any after parties
  • Risk assessing the party venue prior to the event and considering any steps they can take to reduce risk, such as designating a manager not to drink and to be on the lookout for any unacceptable behaviour

Finally, no discussion of office parties would be complete without consideration of how to deal with the following morning.  Some organisations allow employees to have a later start time, whilst others take a zero-tolerance approach to hangover-induced sickness absence.  Whatever your approach, decide upon your stance and communicate it clearly to employees in advance of the party.

We hope your office party over the festive season goes well!

30th November 2018