Richard Grogan on employment law: Christmas parties – a nightmare for employers

Richard Grogan
Richard Grogan

Employment law solicitor Richard Grogan of Richard Grogan & Associates Solicitors writes on a seasonal topic in the run-up to Christmas.

The season of goodwill is coming upon us. As part of this, the Annual Staff Party is one of those functions where an employer may have to dig deep to feed and water their staff. However, it can become extremely expensive outing for any employer if the Annual Staff Christmas Party results in a sexual harassment claim or an injury claim. We think it is appropriate that we would explain.

Work function

The Annual Staff Christmas Party is a work function. Even if it is not organised by the employer but is organised by the staff themselves, it is still a work function.

The availability of drink, or more appropriately free drink, coupled with outpouring of goodwill and festive cheer, can at times result in inappropriate actions being taken by some members of the staff which can result in sexual harassment claims.

Effectively, any inappropriate action, particularly inappropriate physical action, by a member of staff toward another member of staff can result in a sexual harassment claim. Equally, certain actions of certain employees who may think it is great fun to play a trick on a particular employee, particularly where there are issues involving the spiking of drinks or other inappropriate actions, can not only result in potential sexual harassment claims but also in claims for personal injury. The use of social media can often result in inappropriate photographs being distributed which, again, can be the source of embarrassment to a particular employee and can result in potential claims.

Where functions are organised outside the workplace, some employers believe they do not have the same level of control over employees, by which we mean the obligation to ensure no harassment or inappropriate activities are taking place. This is wrong. The employer has the obligation and still has that level of control over the employees as regards to ensuring appropriate interactions.

Unfortunately, there is also the issue of drink-related accidents. Where an employer allows employees to have too much drink at a staff function, there is always the potential of a personal injury claim against the employer for failing to take a care, particularly but not limited to situations where that employee causes an injury to another employee.

Can an employer protect themselves?

The good news is that an employer can protect themselves from claims and there are some simple steps that employers need to take to do so.

  1. The company Dignity at Workplace Charter, Anti-Harassment Policy and Grievance Procedures should be sent to all managers and staff.
  2. Those responsible for implementing the policies should be reminded that it is their obligation, as part of their duties, that should a grievance be raised that it is properly investigated in accordance with the company procedure.
  3. That employees are advised that if they have any complaint of any inappropriate behaviour, that a complaint should be made under the Grievance Procedure or the Anti-Harassment Policy, if the procedures are different, and that any complaint will be fully and properly investigated.
  4. That managers are reminded of their obligation to set a good example and to make sure the relevant policy is communicated to all those reporting to them.
  5. That all employees are reminded that at any function they are still acting as employees and any breach of the company procedures, in particular the Anti-Harassment Policy, may result in disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.
  6. In the event that an employer received a complaint, it is imperative that the complaint is properly investigated in accordance with the procedures and is not simply dismissed. The fact that a complaint may be made by a person who is only a short period in the employment against a senior employee who may have been in the company for many years is not any reason that the complaint should not be treated as equally as seriously as it have been made by a long standing employee of good standing.
  7. If there is a finding of inappropriate behaviour, that an appropriate disciplinary procedure is put in place and that appropriate sanctions are applied.
  8. In dealing with any grievance or disciplinary process it is absolutely imperative that the full procedures are applied along with the Code of Practice and Grievance and Disciplinary Procedures. Taking account of new case law, it is useful to advise the person making a complaint or against whom a complaint is made that they are entitled to have representation which may include union representation or a Solicitor or Barrister. The fact that a company may not recognise a union for negotiating purposes does not mean that in relation to an issue like this that the person should not be able to get proper representation including a Union representative.
  9. In relation to the issue of excess of alcohol being taken, it is important to advise employees that, if there is a bar, that it is not an opportunity to have as much drink as they possibly can and that if, as a result of taking drink, they injure anybody or cause offence that this can result in a disciplinary action up to an including dismissal and, if this does happen, that an appropriate action and investigations will take place.
  10. You do not want to be seen as a killjoy. Of course, no employer wants to be seen like this. The staff party is an opportunity to celebrate the year and to reward employees for their performance during the year.

    It is, however, important that employees understand that this is a work function and that the normal acceptable norms for interaction that would take place in a workplace are no different than what should happen at a staff Christmas party.


    Where employers take these simple steps, they can minimise the potential for any successful claim against them should any issues arise. Where they do not, they heighten the potential for a successful claim against them.

    Every employment solicitor knows that, in the period during December to the end of January, that is the time that the complaints come in for sexual harassment claims arising out of Staff Christmas parties. It happens every year. They can be expensive pieces of litigation for any employer. By taking some simple steps you can avoid your Staff Christmas party becoming a litigation nightmare for you.

    • Richard Grogan is the principal solicitor at Richard Grogan & Associates Solicitors. You can subscribe to the firm’s monthly newsletter at
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