For many businesses, the office Christmas party season offers a chance to switch off and have a good time with colleagues. While the intention of such events is a positive one, they also provide a backdrop for a multitude of potential legal issues, such as harassment, arguments and fights, religious, sex or age discrimination, accidents as well as post-party absenteeism.

In addition, business owners are often unaware that if the party is held at a different location to its office or headquarters, they could still be liable for the conduct of staff.

Christmas parties gone wrong can not only cause reputational damage externally, but disputes between staff can also land firms in costly litigation and employment law tribunals, so measures need to be put in place to prevent staff behaviour from getting out of hand.

Employment law expert Michael Shroot explores some of the main risks associated with staff Christmas parties and offers five top tips for a trouble-free office party.

1. Alcohol consumption

The majority of Christmas parties involve alcohol, and while it is very difficult to limit the amount of alcohol consumed at a party – especially if there is a free bar – providing non-alcoholic options, time limits on the bar and offering food will help minimise issues arising from drunken employees.

With many firms opting for an open bar to celebrate the festive season and reward staff for a hard year of work, employers also need to keep an eye out for alcohol consumption from younger members of staff who are under the legal drinking age.

2. Catering and entertainment

If food is being provided at your event, you will need to keep in mind the dietary requirements of your staff and provide suitable choices for vegetarians and those with religious dietary restrictions.

Even consider carefully organising guest speakers or entertainers, or limiting the time and length of the party to prevent staff over-indulging in alcohol.

When booking entertainers such as comedians, it is important to ensure that acts don’t use inappropriate language or behaviour which may cause offense, as the firm may be liable for any grievances relating to the entertainment provided.

3. Inclusive invite

While the event invite should be extended to all employees, including those off sick or on maternity or paternity leave, you should make it clear that attendance is not compulsory. It is important to note that while many office Christmas parties are not overly festive, Christmas is a Christian tradition, so those who do not celebrate the holiday may not wish to attend. Perhaps change the event name to a New Year or end of year celebration party.

Consideration should also be given to those employees who are uncomfortable with attending large events due to the ongoing risks associated with Covid-19.

4. Expected conduct

Being clear from the outset and setting ground rules before the party takes place will ensure that everyone is aware of the standard of behaviour that is expected and help mitigate the risks of issues arising. This also extends to use of social media while at the event. No employer wants to risk its reputation with inappropriate photographs of staff in party mode, looking worse for wear or, the embarrassment of inappropriate messages being uploaded.

Prior to these type of events, employers should also review provisions such as bullying and harassment policies and amend these policies to include social related work events, or introduce them if they are not already in place.

5. Absenteeism

Have a clear and consistent policy regarding post-party absenteeism. Managers should all adopt a consistent message the morning after the party (if this is a work day). The employer should decide beforehand how lenient (or not) it is going to be regarding lateness or absenteeism. Again, this should be communicated to all employees so they are fully aware of the consequences of failing to attend work.

While preparation is key, there will inevitably be cases where behaviour gets out of control.

If a situation does arise at your Christmas party, however tempting it may be to deal with the issue immediately, there shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction and a fair investigation and procedure should always follow.

For more advice on this complex area of employment law or to help resolve any work-related disputes, contact Michael Shroot on 0161 761 4611 or