This post was contributed by Lindsey Hooper, Associate, Norton Rose Fulbright LLP (London)

 Work parties over the Christmas period have become somewhat of a tradition in the UK but they can be a real headache for employers. Here are some handy tips for avoiding common “work party” pitfalls.

Location, location, location

The location of a work party can be key to how much employees relax and enjoy themselves. However, there are lots of other issues to consider:

  • At any work party venue, employers can still be liable for injuries sustained by employees so you should always carry out a full risk assessment. It is also important to ensure that employees are fully aware that your health and safety policy will apply at the party.
  • You should consider whether your venue is truly inclusive – a venue which excludes certain groups could lead to discrimination claims. For example, choosing a venue with poor access may prevent a disabled employee attending. You should also ensure that employees don’t suffer any detriment for not attending (as certain employees may feel uncomfortable attending for religious reasons).

Fancy a Christmas tipple?

In certain situations, employers in the UK can be liable for their employees’ actions at or after the work party (for example, drunken injuries or injuries caused by drink driving). There is also the possibility of reputational damage or rifts being caused by drunken behaviour. When planning a work party, you should:

  • Make sure employees are aware of your alcohol and drugs policy and that inappropriate behaviour will lead to disciplinary action.
  • Consider limited free drinks vouchers (rather than an open bar). You should also make sure non-alcoholic drinks are available.
  • Make sure there is plenty of food and consider religious restrictions and dietary requirements. Food should always be from a reputable supplier.
  • Make sure the venue is well-lit with good public transport links and/or taxis. If you are providing alcohol, you should considering hiring transport to take employees home safely.

It’s just banter… isn’t it?

Employers in the UK can be held liable for the discriminatory behaviour of their employees at a work party. This includes sexual harassment and offensive remarks or actions.  What may be “banter” to one employee may be offensive to another. Good practice to follow is to:

  • Vet any entertainment you are hiring to make sure that it is appropriate and will not cause offence.
  • Circulate your discrimination and equal opportunities policy and your anti-harrassment policy before the party stating that “inappropriate behaviour,” “office gossip” or “banter” may breach the policies and lead to disciplinary action.
  • Advise managers that they cannot discuss employment related matters at the party.
  • Treat any discrimination or harassment claim arising from the party as if it occurred directly in the workplace. If you become aware of discriminatory behaviour or harassment at the party, you should consider sending the perpetrator home directly. As soon as reasonably possible, you should then implement your normal grievance and disciplinary procedures.

Furthermore, if you are allowing employees to bring partners to the event, you should always draft invitations as openly as possible to help mitigate against claims of sexual orientation discrimination.

Sickness absence before and after the event

You should always make sure party invitations are sent to absent employees (whether on family leave or long-term sickness). Failure to do so may lead to discrimination claims.

If an employee fails to turn up to work the day after the party for alcohol related reasons, you may be able to instigate your disciplinary procedure. However, we would recommend that you:

  • Warn employees in advance that taking a sick day for alcohol related reasons the day after the party may lead to disciplinary action.
  • Check the reason for the absence carefully. Jumping to conclusions may lead to allegations of unfairness or a claim for disability discrimination. Remember it is perfectly possible for employees to be sick after a work party for reasons unrelated to alcohol!