D-BRIEF – Employment & Pensions Blog: Christmas parties – considerations for employers

The start of December brings the beginning of work Christmas party season. For employers, Christmas parties provide an opportunity to strengthen teams and thank employees.

However, work social events can be seen as an extension of the workplace and therefore employers do need to be aware of how doing something seasonal for staff may result in unintended liabilities.  This article sets out the circumstances in which an employer can be held liable for the actions of their employees and what they can do to try and mitigate this.

Employers can be held liable for the wrongdoings of their employees where the actions are closely connected to their employment. Whilst ordinarily this would relate to actions in the course of duties, it can extend to outside working hours at work social events. In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd [2018], it was held that a company was vicariously liable for an assault carried out by the managing director on another employee during an unscheduled drinking session after a Christmas party, leaving that employee seriously injured. Whilst the drinking session was independent of the Christmas party and voluntarily attended, the Court of Appeal held there was sufficient connection between the wrongdoing and the company, since the attack was a result of a discussion about business matters when the victim challenged the managing director’s decision-making. This case is a stark reminder of how things can go very wrong at a work social event, but the facts were quite unusual.

Indeed some comfort may be found from a 2019 case in which an employee who sustained a back injury when dropped by another intoxicated person at the Christmas party was unsuccessful in a claim against her employer, Cancer Research UK. It was held that Cancer Research UK had carried out a risk assessment in relation to the event which discharged their duty of care, and they were not vicariously liable for the employee sustaining injuries as the person who dropped the employee was a visiting scientist and his presence at the party had nothing to do with the work he was undertaking for them.

Reminders for employers

Employers are reminded that there is a general duty of care towards employees and thought should be put into the location of the social event and consideration given as to the timings of the event and transport options to ensure employees can get home safely. Events should be inclusive and non-discriminatory and in that respect, cater for different religions, cultures and beliefs in terms of the dates of events, activities and refreshments on offer.

In addition, 2021 brings health and safety factors into the forefront particularly in light of Covid developments. If employers plan to proceed with Christmas parties, risk assessments should be carried out and mitigations put in place to limit any outbreaks as a result e.g. mask wearing, asking attendees to take a lateral flow test, limiting numbers, use of outdoor spaces etc.

Employers should also remind employees of the conduct expected at work social events and that inappropriate conduct may lead to disciplinary action. Whilst employers may have limited control over events on the night and interactions between employees, these reminders in advance will hopefully go some way to avoiding incidents. If incidents do occur at work events, they should be dealt with swiftly in accordance with normal internal processes.

For more information, please contact a member of the Employment Team.

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