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Christmas Parties

Office parties: employers and employees either love them or loathe them, but they remain a feature of most people’s employment.

They range from a small social gathering in the pub after work at the end of a stressful day to the full-blown Christmas party where the alcohol flows freely all night.

Unfortunately, while many employees will use it to let their hair down completely harmlessly, the office party may represent trouble for a small minority. Employers need to be proactive in ensuring acceptable conduct as
they could find themselves vicariously liable for the actions of their employees if those actions are deemed to have been committed “in the course of their employment”, whether or not they were done with the employer’s
knowledge or approval.

If a social event can genuinely be classed as an extension of employment, the employer might find that it is held liable for either acts of discrimination or acts of negligence committed by its employees at the event.
This would include incidents at office parties, client functions, work conferences and work-organised social events such as leaving parties.

In advance of office parties, employers should provide clear written guidelines to members of staff setting out the standard of behaviour expected of them at such events. A short policy will be useful for this purpose. If you
need any help with this, get in touch!

The following cases illustrate potential liabilities for employers and their responsibilities during the festive season:

• Chief Constable of the Lincolnshire Police v Stubbs and others
The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) held that an employer was vicariously liable for an act of sexual harassment committed by an employee in a pub outside working hours, stating that social events away from the office involving employees from work either immediately after work, or during an organised party, fell within the remit of ‘course of employment’.

• Livesey v Parker Merchanting Ltd
This case demonstrated the difficulties in defining ‘course of employment’, with the tribunal holding that sexual harassment that occurred during a car journey home from a work Christmas party was not within the course of employment and therefore the employer was not vicariously liable. However, as the harassment, in this case, amounted to a continuing course of conduct, the EAT overruled the tribunal’s findings on this point.

• Williams and others v Whitbread Beer Co
This case illustrates the importance of monitoring and controlling the alcohol consumption and behaviour of employees. An employer who provided an unlimited free bar at an office party was held to have unfairly dismissed three employees for their resulting abusive and violent drunken behaviour. However, dismissal following incidents at an office social event will not necessarily be unfair. In the case of Gimson v Display
By Design Ltd, the employer was found to have fairly dismissed an employee for a fight that took place after the end of a Christmas party. This case also demonstrates that it is acceptable for employees to be disciplined for misconduct occurring outside of the office, provided that the incident is sufficiently closely connected to work to have had an impact on the work environment.

• In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited, an employer was found liable when the managing director assaulted another employee during drinks after the Company Christmas party causing him serious brain damage.