December is a time for office get-togethers, where alcohol fuelled conversations take place and a potential minefield for “office politics”.

Employers need to be on notice about this fact and need to consider a code of practice for such social events and how to prevent and manage any problems that may arise as a result.


Alcohol is of course one of the main benefactors to the difficulties which can often arise as a result of a christmas party after work. Possible issues include sex discrimination and harassment for example. As inhibitions disappear people may feel that it's alright in this environment to make comments that would otherwise not be made. Similarly, a manager and employer might make more frank comments either about the poor level of work by the individual or on the other hand, make promises for promotions that would otherwise not be made. Or the manager might give out confidential information about other staff members.

Taking the first example, if any harassment does take place the employer will be vicariously liable. This is true also of any type of discrimination. An office christmas party is considered to be “in the course of employment” and it doesn't matter whether or not the employer knew about the protected act. There is little an employer could do to prevent their liability in these circumstances. Whilst there is a defence if they can argue that they took all reasonable steps to prevent any such behaviour, it is often a difficult hurdle to pass. The answer is as usual to ensure that all staff are aware of what is and is not acceptable behaviour. An employee hand book detailing the consequences of unwanted behaviours and regular training are both methods of helping to prevent unwanted behaviour. However, it is becoming more and more common for employers to put together a specific code of practice for work-related social events.

Proactive steps to be taken by an employer can extend to the chosen venue for the event. Choosing a venue that does not encourage negative behaviour for example; limits could be put on the amount of money put behind the bar and also ensuring that food is available could ensure a more sober, less problematic environment. Managers may be asked to look out for any issues and to fix them as and when they arise. An announcement could be made before the party to remind staff of the consequences of unacceptable behaviour. Although not very jolly, the possibility of vicarious liability is too much of a risk to put to one side in the interests of fun.

Top tips for employers include:

  • Depending on the amount of alcohol that is to be supplied it could be a good idea to organise transport;
  • Advise all management to avoid getting into conversations about work and specifically the performance of individuals and contractual points;
  • Carry out a risk-assessment of the venue to identify and fix any possible health hazards;
  • Decide in advance the level of leniency to be advanced to employees the day after the event and ensure that they know about this (this could be a bigger issue in certain industries for example those involving the use of heavy machinery);
  • If there are any allegations made of discrimination follow your internal procedures and ensure a full investigation and disciplinary procedure.

Planning is key here. Employers need to take some time to anticipate possible issues and think about how these might best be avoided, whilst having a jolly good time!

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