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How can employers avoid problems at staff parties?

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With the festive season fast approaching, many employers have already finalised their plans for a staff party. Others may prefer a more spontaneous approach.

Either way, there are many legal issues for employers to consider. This is because work-related functions such as Christmas parties and similar events are effectively work activities covered by the same legislation that applies to the workplace.

Consequently, employers can be vicariously liable for their employees’ actions, such as

harassment, bullying and even personal injury. Of course, the individual engaging in inappropriate behaviour can be personally liable, too.

Harassment is defined in the Equality Act 2010 as unwanted conduct related to a relevant “protected characteristic” which has the purpose or effect of either:

Violating an individual’s dignity or
Creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for an individual

Protected characteristics include (but are not limited to) someone’s age, sexual orientation and race. Sexual harassment, which has been a high-profile issue throughout 2023, is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature. It is all too easy to see how offensive behaviour at an office party can constitute harassment.

Employers may have to manage grievances or disciplinary proceedings if the social event does not go to plan. In the worst-case scenario, they may be involved in Employment Tribunal proceedings.

So, what can employers do to ensure social events run smoothly?

As office parties are an extension of work, remind everyone that the usual policies and procedures still apply. Bullying, harassment and disciplinary procedures could all be relevant.
Consider whether you want a specific policy for work-related social events. This would provide clarity on acceptable standards of behaviour.
Remind senior managers beforehand of the expected standards of behaviour and that they need to set an example.
Depending on the location and guests, you may need a health and safety risk assessment of the venue.
As well as vicarious liability, you have a duty of care to your employees, so discourage excessive alcohol consumption.
If you provide free alcohol, limit this to either a couple of hours or to certain types of drinks.
Make sure you provide plenty of non-alcoholic drinks for those who are driving or who do not drink for religious or other reasons.
Remind everyone that it is illegal for employees under the age of 18 to consume alcohol and that disciplinary action could follow for the individual or anyone buying them alcohol.
Make it clear that it is strictly forbidden for anyone to be under the influence of, or use or be in possession of illegal drugs.
If the traditional evening party seems too risky, hold a lunchtime event to reduce the possibility of employees drinking too much alcohol and behaving inappropriately.

There is another option, of course, not to have a staff party at all. Bullying and harassment, inappropriate sexual comments, upsetting photographs on social media and drunken fights occur all too frequently at staff parties. For these reasons, many employers no longer organise any staff social events. However, if you choose not to have a party, you should consider how this may impact staff morale and engagement.

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