Alan Matthew, consultant in the Commercial Department at Tayside based solicitors Miller Hendry, provides advice on what companies should be considering as the clock ticks down to the annual Christmas party and how employers can avoid the event becoming the wrong sort of cracker

“Any company-organised office party, whether in or out of working hours and on or off site, is an extension of the workplace which can test a business across the board on its policies and attitudes. It’s a real stress-test for the culture of the business and its employment policies. Each year we see another significant case reaching the courts arising from an incident at a work party.  Often the focus is on creating a morale-boosting and team-building event, and that’s important, but staff need to know the boundaries and what is acceptable behaviour if companies are to safeguard against a difficult morning after.

“One big headache for employers is the risk of being held vicariously liable for the misconduct of their employees at such events. Aggression and sexual harassment are the most common forms of misconduct at such events, something no organisation wants to see happening at what is supposed to be a festive celebration. This type of misconduct can lead to substantial claims for compensation, with the associated damage to a company’s reputation.

“To protect staff, it’s important that companies take the necessary steps to assess and guard against potential risks, including setting out expected standards of behaviour, limiting the amount of alcohol and having a clear boundary for when the event will close.

“From the get-go, employers should set out the company’s attitudes to alcohol consumption at the party. It’s particularly important to set clear boundaries as there is generally a zero-tolerance policy towards alcohol in the workplace and the party is an extension of the workplace. Additionally, to be inclusive, employers should ensure non-alcoholic drinks are available if alcohol is being served. This is particularly important for those who may not want to drink on the night, if they are driving or for cultural and religious reasons.

“Its important employers manage overall alcohol consumption, so employees don’t lose their usual workplace inhibitions.  Remind everyone that actions or comments that would be unacceptable behaviour in the workplace still hold in the relaxed atmosphere of the party.  Be clear about when the event will close and make everyone aware at the appropriate time that the party is over.

“Employers ought to be alert for health and safety risks the morning after, if it’s a working day, particularly where machinery or driving is involved, in case anyone is still under the influence of alcohol. If anything happens, act promptly to investigate and make sure grievance or disciplinary policies are followed.

“The annual work Christmas party is a fantastic opportunity for colleagues to let off some steam and get to know each other in a more informal environment.  By following some simple, practical guidelines, employers can be sure to avoid a cracker of a hangover the morning after.”