Don’t let this be your Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come! Ensure you’re not haunted by any festive celebration fall-out

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The facts of a recent High Court decision, Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd do not make happy seasonal reading – the Sales Manager of a recruitment firm seeking damages from his employer for brain damage sustained when the Company’s Managing Director punched him in the face during a work-related argument at an impromptu after party drinking session!

Ultimately, the High Court concluded that the Company was not vicariously liable for the actions of its MD. The assault had occurred at a gathering that was entirely separate from the Company’s organised celebration. The incident took place at a different venue - a bar in a hotel where some employees were staying overnight. Those in attendance were there entirely at their own discretion. The fact that the assault appeared to be have been triggered by a work related dispute did not provide sufficient nexus for the Company to held vicariously liable for the MD’s actions.

Clearly, the facts of this case are extreme - to say the least. However, it does serve as a timely reminder of the importance of a few precautionary measures to ensure that your own festive celebrations don’t leave you with an HR hangover lasting well beyond the New Year.

Top tips

So here are EEF’s 5 ‘top tips’ to ensuring your Christmas party is memorable only for the right reasons. Let’s face it, 2016 has brought most of us enough surprises already!

1. Remember, vicarious liability is not a clear cut issue - make sure you set the rules in advance.

Yes, we are all adults, and yes we should all know better, but potentially you can still be held liable for the actions of your employees at events held off-site, out of normal working hours and at which attendance is optional.

So, whilst getting employees to sign a liability waiver before they even bite into their first mince pie would probably ‘put a bit of a dampener’ on things, it would be sensible to remind employees in advance that whilst your Christmas party is of course a social event, and the most important thing is to have fun, those attending will still be expected to demonstrate appropriate standards of behaviour. In particular re-emphasise that your equal opportunity and/or anti-harassment policies remain applicable. Make it clear that conduct which breaches these will not be tolerated and could result in disciplinary action. One person's 'friendly banter', or 'harmless flirting' can be another’s harassment.

2. Be inclusive.

Although not everybody celebrates Christmas as a religious festival, or otherwise, it does provide a good opportunity to demonstrate your appreciation of your staff’s hard work during the year. A staff party can also facilitate employees socialising with colleagues they might not have much opportunity to engage with during working hours, and so boost overall morale. Whilst nobody should feel ‘forced’ to attend a work related social event, neither should anyone be excluded/overlooked on the assumption that they wouldn’t want to attend.

Taking all employees into consideration, both in terms of the time, location and proposed format of your celebration is important. For example, if your main celebration is in the evening, you might also consider offering an alternative lunch-time event for those staff who might have child care difficulties which would prevent them from attending an evening event.

Other relevant considerations are employee religious, or other, beliefs. This might impact on dietary requirements etc. Such issues should be taken into consideration when deciding on catering options. Also, make sure there are plenty of non-alcoholic drink options available.

3. Lead by example.

Clearly, this was not the approach taken by the MD in Bellman! A general reminder that the Christmas party is not the appropriate venue at which to discuss work related issues or problems might be in order.

Nobody wants to be cast as Scrooge, but excessive alcohol consumption and ‘inappropriate’ behaviour – fighting or otherwise - do seem to go hand-in-hand. Providing employees with unlimited amounts of free alcohol, and doing nothing to discourage those who ‘obviously’ over-indulge is unlikely to viewed as the actions of ‘a responsible employer’ should it subsequently come to the attentions of a third party – such as an employment tribunal!

Depending on numbers, consider asking certain managers if they would be willing to act as ‘unofficial hosts’ and take responsibility for ensuring that any potential problems are nipped in the bud. Obviously, this may require them to maybe more abstemious than other party goers, but this is probably a sacrifice most would be willing to make for a trouble-free evening.

If ‘an incident’ does occur, make it clear that a spot of early intervention is all that is required. A swift, and hopefully dignified, exit for the individual(s) concerned - “taxi to the back door, please!” Leave any official action (if appropriate) until the cold light of day - when everybody is back in the office.

4. How will employees get home?

Provide the contact details for reputable local taxi firms and encourage employees to pre-arrange how they intend to get home at the end of the night.

If you are feeling particularly generous, laying on transport home for staff will always be appreciated - but make it clear such transport is to get employees home safely, and should not be ‘diverted’ to another party venue.

5. 'Wakey, wakey rise and shine'!

If you hold an event that has the potential to carry on into ‘the wee hours’ decide in advance to what extent, if at all, you are willing to be lenient with any staff who are schedule to work the following day. Will you allow a later start time than normal – an early Christmas present? Whatever you decide, ensure that you communicate your expectations clearly and apply any dispensations consistently. Also make it clear that if employees are due in work, they will be expected to attend, normal absence procedures apply. Depending on your staffing requirements, you might want to suggest that those employees who think they might be ‘a tad’ tired’ the morning after the night before might want to consider taking a day’s holiday for recovery time.

And finally …..

If, despite your best effort, you experience a bit of Christmas party fall out, remember your EEF adviser is just a phone-call away.

Author

Principal Legal Adviser

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