Christmas Parties, Alcohol and Ensuing Problems

Christmas party season is firmly upon us. It’s an opportunity for employees to celebrate Christmas, celebrate another year passed, and to let their hair down with fellow workers. Many of the attendees will drink alcohol. For the vast majority, the Christmas party will pass without problem; the only negative consequence being a few sore heads the next day. However, with consumption of alcohol, sometimes people do not behave in a way that they otherwise would…

What if something goes wrong?

Many work Christmas parties will take place during times that the employees would otherwise be working. If there is misconduct at a Christmas party held during working hours, the employer has an unambiguous right to discipline the employee – and of course, if the employee has less than 2 years of continuous service, the employer can simply terminate their contract of employment with little risk of come-back.

What happens if Christmas parties are held outside of working hours?

Many employees feel that there are no disciplinary ramifications to misconduct outside of work. This is incorrect. For example, in the case of Post Office v Liddiard, an employee with an unblemished 12 year work record was fairly dismissed when he was identified in the press as having been responsible for an act of football hooliganism in France. The fact that the misconduct had happened outside of work time was no defence: the act of misconduct had caused reputational damage to the employer, and dismissal was fair so long as it fell within the ‘range of reasonable responses’.

Employers also need to be vigilant because they can be responsible for the wrongdoing of their employees outside of working hours under the doctrine of vicarious liability. This point is illustrated by the case of Bellman and Northampton Recruitment Ltd which was heard in the Court of Appeal in July 2018…

Mr Bellman was a sales manager for a recruitment firm. On 16th December 2011, the staff of that firm enjoyed a Christmas party at a golf club in Northampton. Late in the evening, the managing director, Mr Major, arranged for taxis to take those staff that wanted to continue drinking to the nearby Hilton Hotel. The company paid for the both the taxis and the alcohol consumed. An argument ensued at the hotel and Mr Major delivered the staff present with a lecture as to his authority. Angry at being challenged by Mr Bellman, Mr Major punched him causing brain damage. At first instance, the High Court found that the recruitment firm was not liable for Mr Major’s actions. The Court of Appeal disagreed: there was sufficient connection between Mr Major’s job and the assault he committed at 3am to make it appropriate for the company to be vicariously liable. This was particularly the case as the party was not purely a social event but a work event where taxis and alcohol had been paid for by the firm.

At the risk of sounding like a party pooper, prudent employees will limit their alcohol consumption at a work Christmas party so that they remain in control of their actions, whilst prudent employers will carefully monitor the behaviour of the attendees of work Christmas parties and deal with any poor behaviour before it gets out of hand.

If you have any questions regarding this or any other employment law matter, please contact us at employment@woodfines.co.uk or via telephone at any of our offices.