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How to avoid a Christmas party hangover


By Tina Chander, associate solicitor, Wright Hassall

After working hard all year long, the opportunity to throw an exciting Christmas party for your employees can be a much-needed break from the normal work routine, but it’s important that employers exercise caution when making decisions on where to go. 

Hosting parties that involve large amounts of alcohol can create a whole host of legal issues later down the line and, from an employment law perspective, just because the party takes place away from the premises and outside of normal working hours, it does not necessarily protect the organisation from claims stemming from the misbehaviour of their employees. 

Unfortunately for employers, there is always the potential liability for acts of discrimination or harassment by its staff, which tend to be the most common offences when alcohol is involved. Sexual harassment or discrimination on the grounds of race, sexual orientation or gender are usually the most common issues that occur.   

Existing workplace tensions between employees can come to the surface on a night out, especially when emotions are running high from over-consumption of alcohol. When these tensions spill over, it is not uncommon to see physical or verbal fights break out between aggrieved individuals. Such behaviour could lead to claims for potentially unlimited compensation against both the employer and the employee responsible. 

Incidents such as these are unfortunately all too common and every January employment lawyers will be inundated with calls from clients that begin: “There was an unfortunate event at our Christmas party...”. The time and effort required by management in dealing with any grievance and/or disciplinary issues arising from any such incident, should also not be forgotten. 

To lessen the risk, employers should firstly recognise the potential for problems and take the following steps:

• Everyone must be invited, regardless of whether they are ill or on leave – not inviting certain individuals could result in claims of discrimination;

• When employees can bring partners, do not discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and assume all partners will be of the opposite sex;

• Ensure that you have an equal opportunities/anti-harassment policy in place;

• Remind workers before the party that the same code of conduct applies, and that any instances of harassment, discrimination or violence will not be tolerated under any circumstances;

• Tell employees to enjoy themselves and have a good time, but remind them that inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated and could result in disciplinary action;

• If hired entertainers tell racist, sexist or offensive jokes and the employer does not fulfil its duty to protect employees from this unwanted conduct, it could be liable for harassment claims;

• Consider limiting the bar tab. Providing limitless amounts of alcohol to employees, without monitoring who is drinking what is irresponsible, and can increase the likelihood of a serious issue occurring;

• Consider appointing a senior, responsible employee to stay sober, monitor behaviour and step in if necessary.

Christmas Gifts with a hidden agenda...

Given the inevitable gifts and invitations to other organisations’ Christmas festivities, it is important for employers to be mindful of their potential liability under the Bribery Act 2010. 

Failing to prevent bribery in the workplace is strict liability, and employers must show it has ‘adequate procedures’ in place to successfully defend against such a case. 

Regardless of size, all organisations should have policies in place to remind employees of what is and isn’t acceptable. 

Liability arises from both offering and receiving bribes. Reasonable gifts and hospitality, such as a bottle of wine or an invitation to dinner should not raise too much concern, but if employees are whisked away on a private jet, sipping Champagne to meet Father Christmas in Lapland, questions may need to be asked!