Employment law - alcohol Christmas caution

24 November 2023

Alcohol at work Christmas parties can cause a raft of problems from inclusivity issues to serious sexual misconduct and employers should consider switching to more sedate alternatives.

That’s the opinion of Higgs LLP employment law expert Katherine Cooke, who said the firm sees a surge of disciplinary cases as a hangover of festive excess on work-organised dos.

“Christmas parties which revolve around alcohol have always led to an increase in problems that need to be resolved,” said Katherine.

“In December and January we often see a surge in businesses asking for disciplinary advice around bad behaviour on various levels, including physical violence and discriminatory comments.

“There is an obvious correlation between the amount of drinking that happens at an event and the number of problems experienced. Some of our clients who have scrapped their free bar policy have noticed a clear improvement in staff behaviour.”

Katherine said some employees do not appreciate that poor conduct at the Christmas party can lead to disciplinary proceedings.

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“Christmas parties are work events so employers can be liable for employee actions during those events and employees can face disciplinary consequences for their actions,” said Katherine.

Katherine Cooke

Employment Lawyer, Higgs LLP

“We’d recommend sending an email to all staff before the event clearly setting out behavioural expectations and responsibilities.

“There is also a duty of care owed to employees to look after their safety at work related events. It is a good idea to risk assess an event beforehand and consider measures like arranging or reimbursing transport home.

“At least one senior person should be nominated to remain sober to keep an eye out for colleagues.”

Katherine said there have been cases that have reached Tribunal arising from management discussions of pay rises while caught up in the excitement of the event, which employees have then challenged legally when the offer hasn’t materialised.

Katherine's warnings come as new research from Easy Offices showed 34% of UK employees avoid work socials because they know alcohol is going to be there.

Furthermore, 43% of UK workers said they feel pressure to drink at work socials - but, despite this, 84% of work socials involve alcohol.

“Having alcohol-centred events also raises inclusivity issues,” said Katherine. “There are people with religious beliefs who may not want to attend venues which sell alcohol and promote heavy drinking. Similarly, this also causes problems for people who have, or have had, problems with drinking and struggle in that environment.

“It can create isolation. I would encourage businesses to be more creative by incorporating more team-based activities into a Christmas event, to change the focus from only the food and drink.

“Try to create events that are accessible to all – not just those who enjoy a knee’s up.”

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