An employer’s guide to the work Christmas party

Written by Mike Gallagher
26 October, 2023

When considering the work Christmas party it would be easy to fall into a spiral of rulemaking and declaring fun absorbing dictates of course, not to control the fun or quell the festive spirit, but rather to try and prevent any HR headaches throughout the festivities and into the New Year to ensure everyone has a good time.

It is easy to see why some employers might want to start rulemaking and tightening up on their application, especially when you consider the Christmas Party HR headache.

The Work Christmas Party HR Headache

Employers can be held liable for the actions of an employee due to an often frustrating legal principle, vicarious liability.

Usually, where an employee misbehaves, for example, discriminates against someone during their working hours, the employer could be held responsible. Equality & Diversity Training will enable your business to plead the statutory defence to any vicarious liability claim. In essence, moving the blame away from the business to the employee (who will also need to be properly disciplined as a result of their behaviour). 

The difficulty for employers is that the principle has been extended to include events outside of normal working hours providing that their is a sufficient link to work, the Christmas Party for example.

Hypothetically speaking, if Sally in Sales has a shandy too many and starts hurling racist abuse, you could be responsible.  If Frank from Finance starts a fight you could again be held liable.  So it is easy to see why some employers can get worried about the Christmas Party. 

Christmas party

The Do’s and the Dont’s at the Work Christmas Party

The do’s and dont’s for the Work Christmas Party are quite simple really,

Do relax.

Don’t panic.

At the end of the day, the Work Christmas Party is as much for you as it is for your staff and colleagues.  The Christmas season is about fun and enjoyment and you should try to avoid draining the happiness from these events.  You could issue a memo informing staff of what is acceptable and not, but detailing all possibilities is near enough impossible and would make for a lengthy memo.  Moreover, a memo is unlikely to have any impact on behaviour whatsoever, especially after a few drinks. 

Annual Leave

If an employee acts in such a manner that requires it, it would be advisable to intervene, and reduce the risks of bad behaviour to the business, whether that be:

    • sending an employee home;
    • calling for a lift or a taxi;
    • intervening in any physical altercations, if safe to do so;
    • other necessary mitigation as the circumstances dictate.  


     An employee has behaved poorly at the Work Christmas Party, what next?

    Ordinarily, drunkenness and frivolity are expected to some degree at a Work Christmas Party.  However, where behaviour falls far below the standard expected it may result in one of two scenarios:

    1. A grievance being raised; or 
    2. A disciplinary matter.

    These may seem like unlikely scenarios, but what if damage was caused to the venue because someone was dancing on a table or an employee took ‘banter’ one step too far and upset an employee because of a protected characteristic?  

    Obviously, you should take any steps to mitigate the damage and try to restore some sense of fun, but any issues that arise at Christmas Parties although serious, can be dealt with during working time, rather than on the night.  

    Once everyone has returned to work you should deal with either disciplinaries or grievances in the usual way.  If you need to, take advice on how to do this you should do so to mitigate the risks of litigation.  It is important to state that any grievances or disciplinary matters should be taken seriously, regardless of any alcohol consumption.  

    Initially, you should start by investigating the matter, this could include taking statements or reviewing CCTV from the venue for example.  Any investigation should be as thorough and reasonable as possible in the circumstances of the case.

    It is important to note that any matters should be dealt with swiftly and promptly.  The ACAS Code of Conduct on Disciplinaries and Grievances in the Workplace specifically states that employers should “deal with issues promptly and should not unreasonably delay meetings, decisions or confirmation of those decisions.”  Although a Christmas close down or period of annual leave could, in some cases, be a reasonable delay it would be expected that where possible investigations and procedures are commenced promptly. 

    Alcohol and Drugs

    Most businesses will have their Work Christmas Party when they will be closed the next day, it makes sense, after all, no one really wants their team to be walking around like hungover zombies and all employers want their staff to have a good time.

    Should you suspect drug use at a Christmas Party you can carry our targeted drug testing upon the return to work.  In order to do so,  you will need to ensure that you have a policy in place and you have the necessary equipment and standards to do so safely and fairly. 

    Testing for alcohol and drugs is a serious thing to consider.  In the case of testing for alcohol, it could erode staff morale and whether it be testing for alcohol or drugs it can erode their confidence in you, especially where the tests return a negative result.  This is not to say that you should not carry out tests, but you should be aware of any possible backlash and manage that properly.


    Staff Absences

    Where your Work Christmas Party is followed by a working day, (some businesses cannot avoid this after all) we often see an increase in staff absences.   If the employee has an otherwise clean absence record, it would be worth considering carefully how absence for one day should best be managed. For example, it may be in the best interests of staff morale to deal with any such incident of absence in an informal manner and meet with the employee to reiterate the high standards of attendance expected of them. For an absence of 7 days or less, an employee is not required to provide a Fit Note from their GP, providing evidence of their illness, and can instead self-certify the reason for absence.

    Whilst you may have a reasonable suspicion that an employee who calls in sick the day after the Christmas Party is perhaps being untruthful, and could initiate the alcohol testing policy in the employee handbook, it is worth asking whether this is proportionate, especially given the ongoing effects of the pandemic.  Instead, you might wish to think about offering some of the incentives below as a means of encouraging staff to attend work and boost morale.

    It is also important to be consistent in how you treat employees who call in sick the day after the Party with greater suspicion than others.  Instead, if you are concerned about your employee’s absence, you should meet with them and reiterate your standards.

    The situation could differ where an employee has a history of absence.  In this case, if their absences have exceeded the number allowed in your Absence Management Policy, you should proceed with an Absence Management Meeting in order to be certain the true nature of the employee’s absence. Where you have a reasonable suspicion that an employee has been consistently untruthful when giving the reason for their absence, you should follow the disciplinary procedure and obtain further advice on how to proceed.


    It is worth noting that you cannot discipline for absences, for you do need a separate Absence Management Policy.

    Incentives to avoid staff absences

    The Work Christmas Party can be an alcohol-heavy occasion and even those with the best of intentions can get carried away often resulting in increased staff absences. 

    This is a great opportunity for employers to give a discretionary incentive to staff to avoid sick days the day after the night before.. This could be done by; offering a free breakfast sandwich in the morning or allowing staff to come in an hour later than their usual start time. By allowing some leniency with your staff it allows you to show trust in your employees.


    Employment Law Solutions

    Christmas is, of course, a time for “peace on earth and goodwill for all men” but where necessary employers are advised to uphold their normal standards, to apply rule consistently and fairly and to ensure that everyone has a pleasant festive period.  Of course, Employment Law Solutions remain on hand to support any employers who may have the unpleasant task of dealing with HR Headaches at this time of year, call us on 01270 781 006

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