Q: Who is responsible for bad behaviour at the office Christmas party?
A: The work Christmas party offers an opportunity for staff to socialise with their colleagues in a more informal setting.
However, the nature of these events can occasionally lead to inappropriate behaviour, which raises the question of who should be held responsible when employees cross the line.
As Christmas parties tend to be organised and paid for by the employer, they are generally considered to be a continuation of the working environment.
Employers will usually be deemed vicariously liable for the actions their employees carry out within the course of their employment at these events. This means while certain workplace rules may not apply, employers have a responsibility to ensure staff behave appropriately at these events.
Recent case law has also suggested employers could be considered liable for employee misconduct that occurs after the Christmas party is over.
The case in question, Bellman v Northampton Recruitment, found the company was liable for their managing director’s physical assault on a colleague at an impromptu drinking session following the company’s Christmas party.
Although specific in its details, this case shows the extent to which employers may be considered responsible for the actions of their staff outside of the usual working environment.
As the lion’s share of the responsibility rests with the employer, it is important that they carry out the necessary steps to guard against misconduct.
Employers are advised to have a policy in place that addresses office parties and work-related social events, outlining that staff have a duty to behave responsibly at all times.
Prior to the event it would also be a good idea to issue workers with a reminder, either by letter or email, informing them that the company’s rules on acceptable behaviour, discrimination and harassment will still apply regardless of where the event is being held.
Although many people’s idea of a Christmas party involves the consumption of alcohol, in recent years some employers have chosen to move away from this practice in favour of a ‘dry’ or alcohol-free party.
However, despite the best laid plans there is still the risk that employees may behave inappropriately. As part of their responsibility, employers will need to respond to any allegations of misconduct, including harassment or criminal activity, in line with their disciplinary policies.
Staff may try and pass off certain forms of misconduct as ‘banter’ but employers should refrain from accepting this excuse and ensure all incidents are treated seriously.
While staff are in control of their own actions, the onus still remains on employers to ensure individuals behave appropriately. It is important that employers acknowledge this and follow the advice above, or their Christmas party could end up being memorable for all the wrong reasons.