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The Christmas Party: Advice for Employers and their Employees

Key takeaways:

  • The traditional Christmas party is still popular
  • Drinking responsibly is the best antidote to avoid HR issues
  • Divisive topics of conversation are best avoided
  • Social events are sociable – don’t use them to discuss your employment relationship
  • Respect your colleagues’ boundaries – avoid hugs and kisses!
  • Be interested in others, show your sense of humour
  • Get involved, be friendly and inclusive BUT
  • Don’t forget to go home and on the way home remember all of the above!

In a recent poll, we asked whether Christmas work-socialising pressure was getting to people, or whether they were looking forward to some relaxed time with colleagues. It can be awkward. Christmas 2020 was cancelled, but 3 years on, Covid is still with us and the world of work has pivoted yet again. Many employers have gradually been pressing a return to an “old normal” rather than a post-Covid “new normal,” by requiring office attendance in a variety of formats, whether that be a certain number of days per week or anchor days, rather than total flexibility.

With increasing talk of a need to “reset” to re-establish professional conduct, including how people dress for work when in the office, there is a growing sense that employers believe the balance has tipped too far towards individual choice, at the expense of an efficient, cohesive and productive workforce as a whole.  The “work where you want and when you want as long as you get the work done” ethos is gradually disappearing in the rear-view mirror. So how is this impacting social plans and will employees be attending their Christmas party if one is being offered? It seems they will.

In our poll, two thirds of those responding said that they would prefer an in-person whole company party, rather than alternative small get togethers. So what are the rules of the road that employers should remind employees about when planning such celebrations?

Drink responsibly

It is uncontroversial that alcohol relaxes inhibitions and people can behave differently as a result. Many cases of alleged misconduct that arise after the holiday period are alcohol related, including alleged sexual harassment or overbearing, bullying and disrespectful behaviour. Such conduct will lead to disciplinary action and may also be career limiting or even career ending, in a regulated environment, where the fitness and propriety of regulated individuals requires a standard that must be adhered to at all times, even when socialising. Respect must also be freely given to those who choose not to drink, and delicious and adequate non-alcoholic options should be provided at all the best parties!

Talk respectfully and avoid provocation

Uncomfortable topics of conversation may arise and should be avoided. Instead, the conversation should be steered towards something more light-hearted and appropriate for a social setting. Politics, particularly in the context of current worldwide events and conflicts, can give rise to areas of legal risk. Whilst one would not expect the sort of hate crimes we have seen erupting on the streets, at a Christmas party, it must be remembered that the Equality Act 2010 and case law protects those from all religions and those with cogent and serious philosophical beliefs, which are worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and do not conflict with the fundamental rights of others. The offence of harassment related to religion or belief under s26 of the Equality Act would be a disciplinary offence and it is perhaps easier to harass colleagues, than one would think. This is because comments need not be targeted at an individual and can consist of a general culture, for example, the telling of “religious” jokes, even if the person telling the joke is from that religion. Nicknames, teasing and other behaviour which is not intended maliciously can nonetheless be upsetting undermining or humiliating to some and as such would constitute harassment.

Don’t discuss your employment relationship

Not only is this very awkward, but any statements made in the heat of the moment are unlikely to be enforceable. Any attempt to do so, once back in the workplace, is likely to lead to disappointment at best, and at worst, a breach of the necessary implied term of confidence and trust required to uphold the employment relationship and ultimately a total breakdown in the relationship, which could lead to the relationship being brought to a premature end.

Avoid hugs and kisses

Unwanted touching will be harassment or even assault and as such can give rise to allegations of sex discrimination or sexual offences which are criminal in nature. What can seem consensual on the night, may become an allegation the following day, triggering an investigation, disciplinary action, a report to the police and dismissal. If criminal offences have been committed, sentencing will follow which could include imprisonment, making it impossible to work. In regulated businesses, including law, the sanction of the regulator may result in the individual being unable to continue to practice their chosen career. This is not fanciful. We see cases where this happens and the fall out and cost extends to families and beyond. The kindly- meant offer to escort a colleague home, especially where one or both colleagues have been drinking, can and does often lead to misunderstandings which can escalate into serious legal issues. Always check your proposed plan of action and if in doubt, do not proceed!
Get involved
All of that said, there is real value in getting to know colleagues and understanding them better, which can be done authentically in person and in a social environment, in a way that perhaps cannot be done via in-office or remote interactions. So, arguably the most important takeaways for employers to pass onto their employees are; to get involved, show your sense of humour and your ability to empathise and have fun; be interested in others, friendly and inclusive; and make 2023 your best work Christmas party yet.
If you are a Multinational Employer and have any questions, or would like to discuss any of the points raised in more detail, please contact Partner Merrill April or Trainee Solicitor Mitchell Blythe, both of whom specialise in employment law issues for multinational employers, senior executives, partnerships, LLPs, partners and LLP members.