Love and Death at the Christmas Party!

Posted in : HR Updates on 3 December 2012
Angela Schettino
Think People Consulting
Issues covered:

Angela Schettino writes:

After the ‘bah humbug’ of recent years, it seems many employers have decided, ‘the hell with it, let's go back to having a Christmas bash!’

So, good people in HR, we have to be prepared again for the worst... the horrifyingly embarrassing and the downright lewd behaviour that alcohol, a dark room and Rihanna on the juke box can sometimes bring out in people (and that’s just the MD!). So let's have a think about this and perhaps be a bit more prepared this year...

According to research last year by the CIPD, a whopping 10% of workers know of a colleague who has either been disciplined or dismissed for inappropriate behaviour at the Christmas party. Yes, we know some of you reading this have your heads down and have stayed away from the photocopier as much as possible since December 2009.

Some of the more common reasons for discipline or dismissal following the festivities taken from the research include;

  • Fighting
  • Threatening Behaviour
  • Sexual Harassment
  • Bullying
  • ‘Unorthodox’ use of the office photocopier
  • ‘Amorous activity’ on company premises (broom cupboard shenanigans)
  • Inappropriate behaviour generally
  • Insulting the boss

There are many, many examples and we can all think of some story or another. And, yes it is kind of amusing at times, so let's take a moment...

Ok, slight amusement aside, there are of course potentially serious consequences for both employee and employer.

A senior manager who was clearly intoxicated, assaulted some of his colleagues at the office party and told the director to "stick his (bleep)' job up his (bleep)". Not surprisingly, he was dismissed and lost his case for unfair dismissal.

In another case, a male employee pulled a female colleague's dress down on the dance floor. The female employee won a claim for sexual harassment against the employer and was awarded £10,000.

As an employer, you have a duty of care to protect employees, which extends to what happens at ‘corporate events’. The employer must deal with complaints or grievances arising from behaviour at these events, treating each matter as seriously as it would in the normal day to day running of your organisation.

You could face claims for constructive dismissal as a result of a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence between the employee and the employer for failure to respond appropriately. You may also be faced with claims for discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, religion or disability, this applies also if the employee believes they have been subject to unfair treatment because they do not want to attend the party for religious reasons, or because of childcare responsibilities.

Some sound advice and a ‘friendly warning’:

According to the CIPD, about two thirds of employers don’t have a specific policy on behaviour at office parties. We advise that whether it comes in the form of a standard policy or a ‘friendly (but official) warning just ahead of the festivities, some form of code of conduct issued to employees will help minimise issues and strengthen the case for disciplinary action if inappropriate behaviour does ensue.

The idea is to make it very clear to employees what constitutes unacceptable behaviour at office parties. It’s important not to go too heavy handed, and gauge the feeling and culture of your organisation in writing it (otherwise you might be faced with an empty dance floor) but, nonetheless, do not shy away from getting the message across.

Some tips:

  • Make it clear what behaviour is acceptable / unacceptable. E.g. fighting, being lewd, making unwanted advances, being abusive or bringing the Company into disrepute will be taken very seriously.
  • Remind employees of the dignity at work policy and that harassment, sexual or otherwise will not be tolerated.
  • Consider asking an official photographer to take a group photo with the consent of employees to appear in the office and ask employees not to take photos of their own without consent.
  • Limit the amount of alcohol on offer and ensure food is available at regular intervals.
  • Choose entertainment which is appropriate and inoffensive.
  • Have a few ’sober’ management volunteers who will be responsible for keeping order and / or sending employees who have ‘had enough’ home.
  • Think about transport home for staff, encourage them to share taxis / minibuses etc.
  • If any grievances or allegations are made after the event, follow your usual policy and take each complaint seriously.
  • Simply, don’t do anything you know would not be acceptable in the course of a normal working day.

Be aware of the prominence of Social Media:

Given some of the recent cases in the media involving the use of social media, it seems that for many the use of sites such as Twitter and Facebook have become so engrained in modern culture, that many people cannot help but play out their lives via public postings. Photos, rumours, comments and more will no doubt appear on sites after the Christmas party and there is a real danger that damage to your organisation’s reputation could follow or indeed that an individual may feel bullied or harassed as a result.

Policies around conduct at Christmas parties should remind individuals that any postings or blogs such be made within your social media policy and should not impact on either the company or fellow colleagues. Employees should be reminded that they may face disciplinary action for inappropriate or offensive postings on social media.

Mistletoe, wine and promises...

The case of Judge v Crown Leisure Ltd [2004] is a sobering reminder to managers that it is not wise to make promises you cannot keep in a moment of alcohol-induced generosity or goodwill towards an employee at a Christmas party. In this case, an employee claimed that during the party, his manager promised that within two years, he would be put on a salary which was twice what he currently earned, so that he was on the same salary as another colleague. The employee consequently resigned as the "promise" did not materialise and claimed constructive dismissal.

Whilst the case was lost at EAT, given that the context of the Christmas party meant that the manager was not likely to have been intending to make a contractual agreement with the employee during this conversation, it serves as a reminder that such ‘unofficial’ conversations often carry a lot of weight with the person on the receiving end, especially where promises are made.

A well-managed Christmas party can do wonders for levels of morale and commitment from employees in the coming year, so for those of you throwing caution to wind, we wish you all a great festive season and encourage you to have fun.

We would also like to take this opportunity to wish you a Merry Christmas, from all at thinkpeople Consulting Ltd.

This article is correct at 09/11/2015

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Angela Schettino
Think People Consulting

The main content of this article was provided by Angela Schettino. Contact telephone number is 028 9031 0450 or email

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