‘Tis the Season to be… prepared

Christmas treeEmployers could be held liable for acts of their employees at the Xmas party.

Employers could be held liable for acts of their employees at the Xmas party.

It’s the Christmas party season once again, and another chance for workmates to get together and enjoy themselves after a busy year.

But for employers, the staff Christmas party can mean one almighty headache - and none of it alcohol related.

Employers can be held liable for acts committed by their employees at such events because it is in the course of their employment. Employers have a 'duty of care' to their employees, and as it's the company's party, the emphasis is on them to shoulder the responsibility.

According to Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), an independent body that works to improve employment relations, employers could even be held responsible if an employee gets drunk and decides to drive home.

Hundreds of staff letting their hair down in one location can be a potential minefield. Practical jokes might be deemed offensive, or amorous behaviour seen as sexual harassment.

John Heaney, UK commercial underwriting manager at Hiscox, says: “Certainly the ‘city type’ companies are getting more careful when it comes to the Christmas party. The simple reason being that many companies do spend a lot of money on the office party and the last thing any company wants is a high-profile harassment case.”

Heaney explains that harassment claims do occur often. “You only have to read the papers at the start of the year to see that it does happen,” he says. “What is acceptable behaviour to one company might be unacceptable to another, and the same goes for the individual. Companies need to make sure there are clear guidelines in place well before the day of the party and that every employee knows what a breach of those guidelines means.”

An office-based Christmas party has its own problems, from potentially tripping over Christmas tree lights to falling off ladders while putting up seasonal decorations. Simon Wright, regional Director for Aon's risk control consultants, explains: “As employers, it is your responsibility to ensure that your staff have a risk free Christmas. It can be very costly to deal with claims from staff who are injured at work, and those who know a thing or two about health and safety issues understand that there are risks, but they're easily avoided.”

Some firms are even turning their backs on the Christmas party altogether. Research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) reveals that the number of manufacturing firms throwing a Christmas party has dropped from 71% in 2005 to 60% this year. Private sector employers are the most generous, with 83% likely to provide a Christmas party, compared to only 23% from the public sector.

But Rita Donaghy, Acas Chair says: "If companies have policies and procedures in place which cover the key issues like discipline and grievance, bullying and harassment, discrimination and absence they are in a much better position to handle these sorts of issues which can happen at any time, not just at Christmas.

"But don't let potential hazards put you off organising something for Christmas. Staff will feel valued if you treat them right. Think about asking them what they want to do and ask for suggestions on how to cater for any problems upfront."

For more Christmas party advice visit the Acas website.

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