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Don’t let Christmas parties become new year problems: A guide to the legal risks

Published on Saturday, 05 Dec 2015

The Background

Christmas is just around the corner and, no doubt, many of us already have our minds on the upcoming festivities – including Christmas parties. 
Many employers choose to organise Christmas parties for their employees, and a great many more are organised by internal social clubs and committees. They are a great way to wrap up the year, to have fun and to mingle in a social setting. If done right, they can also boost morale in a company – so what’s not to love about an office Christmas party?

Without wanting to spoil the mood, we want to remind you that an excess of “Christmas spirit” can come with legal risks. 

Beyond harmless, but mortifying, dance moves after one drink too many, there are sometimes instances of more serious misdemeanour at Christmas parties, such as harassment, bullying and discriminatory behaviour. 

The Issues

Employers can be vicariously liable for the incidents that take place during the course of employment in the workplace, and this can extend to the company’s Christmas party. 

More specifically, employers remain vicariously liable for employees’ behaviour at events such as year-end parties that are related to, or paid for, by the employer. 

Employers also need to be mindful that their obligations to protect employees extend to events that are held outside of working hours and premises if they are responsible for organising the event. 
The proliferation of camera phones adds to the legal risks for various reasons. For one, video evidence of misconduct is now more readily available. 

Secondly, a video that goes viral in the office network in the days after a Christmas party may well cause embarrassment, and victimise or discriminate against certain employees. The scope for harm to an employee increases if those videos or photos are made public on social media.

The Action

Are we suggesting that you pull the plug on the upcoming office festivities? Not at all – but there are things both employers and employees can do to better protect themselves.
An employer may not be vicariously liable for the actions of its employees if it can show that it has taken “reasonable steps” to prevent them.

Reasonable steps, in legal terms, will depend on the circumstances. But as a first step, employers should make staff aware that Christmas parties are work-related events – and that any company policies on standards of behaviour will continue to apply. Employers must be clear when communicating expectations for responsible and respectful behaviour at all times.

Consider the environment of the party itself. Is it being conducted in a safe location? One way of discouraging overindulgence is to ensure a plentiful supply of food through the course of a party, and the availability of non-alcoholic beverages. 

Apart from employee conduct, employers are also responsible for the safety of employees. It is important to consider the transportation options, and whether it is necessary to arrange for taxis to ensure employees get home safely. It may also be a good idea to designate one person who is responsible for supervising the event and to provide assistance where required. 

Lastly, it is also important to set specific start and finish times for the Christmas party. Be clear that any impromptu after-party events that follow are undertaken by the employees in their own time, and are not endorsed by the company. Failure to do so may see the company inadvertently taking responsibility for late-night karaoke misadventures, for example.

None of this preparation makes up for a lack of personal responsibility, however. Employees should be encouraged to remember that, even when the ties are loosened, an office Christmas party is still a professional event and demands appropriate behaviour.

’Tis still the season to be merry – but the embarrassing dance moves should be kept to a minimum. 


This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Don't let Christmas parties become new year problems.

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