Employer obligations when hosting Christmas parties

12 December 2019

The year is coming to a close and another silly season is upon us. Before people don their jandals to enjoy the summer weather, many will be looking forward to letting their hair down at the work Christmas party.

For employers, a well executed Christmas party can be an important boost to staff morale and team spirit; however, if employers aren’t careful, issues arising at the Christmas party can result in a longer lasting headache than otherwise expected. Employers need to be careful to strike the right balance in organising and running their Christmas party to best avoid all-too-common problems like accidents, inappropriate behaviour, and/or sexual harassment.

Regardless of where the event is held, a Christmas party is still a work event at which health and safety and employment obligations are unavoidable.

Before the Christmas party, employers should ensure all staff are well aware of behaviour expectations. This can be done in emails to staff providing details of the Christmas party with reminders about the relevant policies (e.g. drug and alcohol and/or bullying and harassment policies) and codes of conduct. Clear communication ensures that employees are aware of behaviour that’s acceptable and not acceptable.

For the Christmas party itself, employers need to understand that even if the party is not in the workplace, health and safety duties still apply. This includes ensuring the venue for the Christmas party is fit for purpose and that potential health and safety hazards are managed.

A common theme in Christmas party disaster stories is alcohol. Along with alcohol, employers need to provide food and non-alcoholic alternatives. Alcohol consumption should be moderated and managers should be encouraged to lead by example. A transport plan is a good idea to ensure staff get home safely and don’t drink and drive.

For staff who continue the festivities after the Christmas party, employers should talk to them about behaviour expectations. An employer has minimal control over things that take place outside of work functions, but there may still be scope for disciplinary action for misbehaviour which impacts on an employee’s ability to undertake their duties or could bring the employer into disrepute (particularly if they are wearing branded clothing).

If an accident or incident does take place at the Christmas party, employers must still be careful to act in good faith and follow fair processes. Employees who suffer injuries should be encouraged to recover fully (usually on ACC). A fair and robust investigation should take place in respect of any conduct issues or complaints which may arise out of the Christmas party. Where there is a complaint by one staff member against another (including alleged harassment or sexual harassment), employers need to ensure the matter is dealt with promptly but carefully. Depending on the matter being investigated, options such as suspensions and independent investigators may be appropriate. Dealing with these types of incidents can often be fraught, and professional advice should be sought at the outset.

Preparing a safe environment, and setting clear behaviour expectations in advance for staff are key for successful Christmas parties. These simple steps should ensure employees can have fun and enjoy the festivities safely.

NWM wishes everyone a safe and happy Christmas and New Year. We are happy to provide guidance on any questions you may have regarding your legal obligations at Christmas parties, or dealing with any incidents which may arise.

Sam Hood is part of our Commercial Disputes & Employment team at Norris Ward McKinnon.

Commercial Disputes & Employment Team