When hosting a staff party, employers need to remember they have a duty of care for everyone’s wellbeing and that all present should be advised that they’re still legally ‘at work’ while attending a ‘work event’, advises a leading employment lawyer.

Linda Hynes, employment partner with Lewis Silkin Ireland, said: “We have already assisted a number of employers this month, who have had to initiate investigations into employee behaviour arising at Christmas parties. Unfortunately, that trend seems likely to continue.

“It’s the first time in over two years that large groups of employees will be coming together in a social situation. To ensure all employees have a good time, employers should remember to treat their colleagues with dignity and respect so everyone can enjoy the party safely.”

Staff parties regularly result in legal actions around issues such as sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination and unauthorised absenteeism.

While excessive alcohol consumption can fuel inappropriate behaviour, Linda also notes that centring a work events on drinking does little to promote cultural inclusion.

“Employers need to consider the members of their teams who, for their own cultural or religious reasons, really don’t want anything to do with drinking alcohol. For company culture as well as for legal reasons, it’s in the employer’s interest to be inclusive.

“The night should involve food and not just centre on drink. It would be an idea to host other activities like bowling, escape rooms or a table quiz. Of course, we all got tired of the Zoom quizzes during the pandemic, but an in-person quiz can be fun.

“Of course, people have very different ideas of what constitutes fun. And, as we know from a recent court case in France, you can’t fire someone for being boring.”

Linda Hynes, partner at Lewis Silkin Ireland.

A French worker, referred to as Mr T, recently won his case against the Paris firm that fired him in 2015 for failing to attend after-hours drinks and team-building activities. The ruling that someone can’t be fired for not being “fun” is being heralded as a victory for introverts everywhere.

“Employers don’t want to be seen as a Grinch, but they have to find a way to tell staff that this is still a work event,” said Linda, speaking to me the night before Lewis Silkin’s own staff party. “Of course, we’ll now have to follow our own advice, but here goes.

“Ideally, employers should host a pre-alcohol social event. Then people should be offered food. When it comes to drinks, managers should not be seen to encourage people to drink alcohol. Managers may want to buy their team a round of drinks, but they shouldn’t push people to drink.

“The night shouldn’t be centred on everyone getting drunk. If people are having shots, they shouldn’t overdo it. Definitely no doubles or alcohol-laced cocktails. Employers need to remind their teams that the office party is an extension of the workplace. People are still obliged to have respect for themselves and for their colleagues.”

While most people attending a staff party slope off peacefully to bed, some end up in brawls with their colleagues. Sometimes the brawls can seem comical, like the two 30-year-old men recently arrested at a Christmas costume party in Grand Traverse, Michigan, USA.

Police officers arriving at the scene reported that one, dressed as a reindeer, was doing his best to defend himself against the attacks of his colleague, dressed as the Grinch. The man dressed as the Grinch was arrested for assault. Officers said they believed the incident was drink-related.

Take the costumes out of this story and you’re left with a fairly typical staff party brawl. Employers can take steps to minimise the possibility of such arguments.

“Don’t sit two people next to each other who have had issues with each other during the year,” advises Linda Hynes. “Managers will know their teams. They will be conscious of those people who have been simmering with each other all year.

“These people will be less shy about their views once they are at the office party, certainly if they have consumed alcohol. There is an obligation on managers to be aware of these risks.”

Linda also notes that the use of camera phones and social media can mean that what happens on the night can have consequences that linger for a long time afterwards.

“Camera phones can be a real problem. For instance, someone who has had too much to drink might be captured on camera. Any footage captured at a party can be shared among colleagues afterwards.

“If this is posted on social media, it can lead to reputational damage, not just for the individual, but also for the company. If you are guilty of bad behaviour, it can result in disciplinary action.”

Linda urges people to remember to treat colleagues and the people serving them in hotels, pubs, clubs and restaurants with respect and dignity at all times.

Ireland has very strong workplace policies and procedures. The office party may be off-site and after-hours, but it is still a work event.

“Employers should prepare to deal with grievances and complaints arising out of workplace Christmas parties,” said Linda. “We are warning employers to expect employee complaints arising out of this year’s Christmas parties and be prepared to carry out investigations.

“Some employees may also only be meeting for the first time at the event where they have only met remotely to date. Although employers don’t want to be the Grinch, they should ensure that staff are reminded that workplace dignity at work, anti-bullying and sexual harassment policies still apply in the context of work parties.”