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07 December 2016

Party perils

With the office party season in full swing, the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd is a reminder that whilst the office party is good opportunity to reward staff and boost morale, there are unfortunately various ways in which a seemingly straightforward event can result in an unwelcome visit to the courts.

As ACAS note, “drink fuelled behaviour is the root cause of many tribunal claims each year.”

In Bellman, following the official office party a few of the guests went on to stay at a hotel. The drinking continued and when the conversation turned to controversial work matters one of the company directors punched an employee causing him to fall over and sustain brain damage. The courts however found that the company was not liable for his actions because the incident took place following, rather than at, a work social event.

The fact that the assault took place in the context of a discussion about work only had a limited effect on the question of liability.
It has long been accepted that what goes on at the office party itself is part of the employment relationship, and the employer therefore may be held responsible for what happens at it. Bellman however clarifies that there is a line to be drawn between the official office party, and any impromptu drinks that take place afterwards, but where exactly that line falls will often be difficult to judge.

It is clear that with good planning the office party should be capable of being enjoyed by all. Here are some tips to help the party season go smoothly.

  • A party will inevitably mean that alcohol will be consumed. The effects of it may lead to inappropriate comments and harassment claims. A bullying and harassment policy that is well drafted, widely known and consistently enforced should ensure employees are aware of their responsibilities and will also provide the employer with a potential defence to any discrimination claims that might be made. If the employer can show it has taken “reasonable steps” to prevent the discrimination or harassment, then this will help them defend any claims.

  • Over indulgence may result in a day off work to recover. If the company party is on a week night, the employer should make clear that all staff are expected to attend work the following day and that disciplinary action will follow if they fail to turn up. Ensure that plenty of non-alcoholic drinks and food are provided.

  • Employers also need to be conscious of how people will get home. If an individual has consumed a lot of alcohol and plans to drive home, the employer should take steps to prevent this. An employer owes a duty of care to its employees and should consider either ending the party before public transport stops running, or providing cab company numbers and encouraging staff to use them.

  • Employers need to consider their workforce as a whole. It may be that a particular venue appeals to the younger members of staff and the older members feel excluded, or it may be opposite scenario, either way may give rise to a claim. Those with childcare commitments may have particular concerns that need to be considered. Try and take into account the diversity of your staff when planning the party - perhaps involve a committee which includes members from a range of your employees to try and strike the right balance.

  • Remind employees of any internet/ email and social media policies as is it likely that photos of any night out might end up posted online.

  • And finally, a party is not the best place to conduct appraisals! In one case, an employee claimed that at a Christmas party he was promised a pay rise to bring him in line with colleagues, within a specific time frame. When that did not happen, he resigned and claimed constructive dismissal. In this case the court found that the promise was too vague to be enforceable, but it is a clear warning to employers that “off the cuff” comments at an office party about, perhaps, a bonus, a pay rise or a future benefit may be enforceable so avoid such comments at all costs.

Office parties are a positive part of office life, but employers do need to be aware of the issues that might arise. If a company is providing free alcohol to staff, then think sensibly about what steps need to be taken to ensure that this does not get out of hand. Provided companies have addressed these issues, then the risk of claims will be minimal.

This article was written by Nick Hurley. For more information, please contact Nick on +44 (0)20 7203 5039 or at