The naughty list: Handling bad behaviour at the work Christmas party

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A combination of alcohol, over-excitement for the upcoming festive period and the desire to ‘let off some steam’ at the end of the year can lead to all manner of things going wrong, from fights to unwarranted sexual harassment. With the festive period upon us, Christmas work party events are in full flow. But what happens when things go wrong?

As a general rule, the conduct of an employee at a Christmas party is likely to fall within the ‘course of employment’, and the conduct could therefore be seen as if it were committed whilst at work. Employees and employers alike should be aware that conduct at a party is not just limited to the location of the venue the party is held at, which has been affirmed by recent case law. In the case of Grimson v Display by Design, an employee punched another employee whilst walking home from their work Christmas party and was subsequently dismissed. Even though this act of violence took place once the party had ended, and did not take place at the party’s venue, the Tribunal held that it was sufficiently closely connected to work, and their dismissal was found to be fair.

However, when making decisions regarding disciplinary action, it’s important not to apply a blanket approach. The sanctions for individuals involved in a fight is not always the same, as shown in the case of Westlake v ZSL London Zoo. Two employees had engaged in a fist fight whilst attending their Christmas Party. This case was brought to the Tribunal, yet despite the individuals being found to have committed the same offence, they received different sanctions; one was dismissed, and the other was given a final written warning. It is therefore important to consider your options carefully before beginning disciplinary action, and ensure that you assess each individual’s conduct on a case-by-case basis, via an investigation process.

It’s also important to consider that as an employer, you could be vicariously liable for the actions of your employees. Employers have a legal duty to ensure their employees are safe at work, and this also applies to work events. It’s important to remember that while your Christmas party may feel like a social event outside of work, an official organised Christmas party is essentially an extension of your workplace, and all the usual rules and guidance applies. In the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited, an employee punched another employee at a Christmas “after party” in a hotel, with the victim suffering brain damage. Despite the incident not taking place at the party venue, the employer was held to be liable for the employee’s actions.

Leading up to your Christmas party, it might be an idea to remind employees of the following via email or announcement:

  • Be mindful of your alcohol consumption
  • Don’t forget that you’re still in a work environment, and still around your colleagues
  • Be careful about posting videos or photographs on social media. Is it appropriate to tag your colleagues?
  • Keep your work rules in mind, as these are likely to still apply whilst at your work event

If you are faced with an employment issue that is affecting your workplace culture, our team of experienced independent and impartial employment investigators can help. Please call us for an initial chat on 0808 196 3151 or learn more here.