How to avoid a legal hangover at the office Christmas party

Before the party
Even when a party takes place somewhere other than in the workplace, it’s important to remember that employment laws still apply and employers may be liable for incidents that take place at official work-related social events.

Drink-fuelled behaviour is the root cause of many tribunal claims each year, and without risking being seen as party-poopers, employers should consider reminding staff of what constitutes unacceptable behaviour at staff social events – as well as highlighting the likely consequences of such behaviour.

Think about your staff
Make the event as inclusive as possible. Not all staff will celebrate Christmas because of their religious beliefs. Some may not drink alcohol and others may not be able to eat certain foods. Take this into account and not only are you more likely to avoid a complaint but your staff will be able to see how much you value them.

If you are hiring an entertainer then make sure they are appropriate and brief them to ensure that they do not have potentially offensive material.

Secret Santa
By its very nature a ‘secret Santa’ allows anonymity to the gift giver. Staff may feel they have carte blanche to give humorous or adult gifts. However, what is funny for one person could be offensive to another and may open the employer to accusations of harassment or bullying. Make it clear to your staff what is acceptable and what will not be tolerated before anything happens to upset an employee.

Limit the amount of alcohol
You can’t necessarily prevent your staff from over-indulging at the Christmas party but you can reduce the risk by limiting the amount of alcohol available. If you have an open bar, give your staff vouchers for a set number of drinks and always make sure there are non-alcoholic options available.

Avoid talking about work
It’s the Christmas party after all, you want to enjoy yourself and celebrate with your staff. However, there is more to this than just having a good time. As the drink flows, tongues start to wag. If you start talking about the latest promotions, bonuses or salary rises, something could be said that could backfire at a later date. The best way to avoid this is by not talking about work at all, although this is easier said than done.

The day after
If you are able to do so, book your Christmas party for a day at the end of your working week. That way you will be safe in the knowledge that your staff won’t be arriving to work worse for wear. If you must have your party during the working week (or if your company operates seven days) let staff know what is expected of them the following day.

If your staff will be driving or operating machinery the day after, be aware that alcohol can remain in the body the following morning. Think about safety of your staff and customers at all times.

By following these simple instructions, and adhering to common-sense principles, you and you team can avoid a legal hangover the next morning


About Hugh Hitchcock

Hugh Hitchcock is a director at DJM Solicitors, a commercial law firm providing legal services to clients across the UK and Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Japan. His career spans 23 years spent in media and corporate law, and he specialises in dispute resolution. He previously spent six years at a leading media firm that acted for Elton John and The Beatles' record label Apple.