UK: Office Festivities – How To Avoid A Legal Hangover

Last Updated: 16 December 2013
Article by Rebecca (Lake) Lynch and Laura Goble

It is that time of year again when office parties are in full swing and staff enjoy an opportunity to let their hair down and relax with work colleagues. 

Whilst most people's shame will be limited to a few dodgy dance moves on the dance floor, it is important for employers to plan ahead to reduce the risk of unwanted behaviour that can arise from the heady mix of alcohol and lowered inhibitions. Many sexual harassment claims arise out of conduct at office parties and even as a consequence of unsuitable "Secret Santa" presents. 

Here are a few tips to help you through the festive period with your business reputation (and your employees' reputations!) intact:


As with any party, the key to its success is to plan ahead in order to be able to assess any risk that arises and reduce or eliminate it.  Remembering the points below will help ensure everyone enjoys the festivities and limit the risk of any claim against your employees and you so everyone can enjoy the party. Remember - prevention is better than cure when it comes to tribunal claims. 

Issue guidance on accepted behaviour

As the party approaches, ensure that the company's disciplinary procedure is up to date and that it is communicated to all staff.  Staff should be made aware that even if the party is not being held in the office, it is a work event and they remain representatives of the company and subject to the normal standard of behaviour expected in the office. 

Staff should be clear about what is expected of them and that the usual disciplinary process will apply with regards to any inappropriate behaviour.  A company must act consistently in its approach to poor conduct in order for a tribunal to view their actions as "reasonable".  You may wish to consider issuing a social events policy to all staff setting out the standard of behaviour that will be expected at the party. 

Avoiding discrimination

It is important to remember that as an employer, you still owe your employees certain obligations at an office party, even if the party is held outside of the office. Employers can be held liable for the actions of their staff at office parties under the principle of vicarious liability set out in the Equality Act 2010.  If one employee discriminates against another, the employer can be held vicariously liable if the discrimination occurs in the course of employment (which can include the office party) unless the employer can show that it took "all reasonable steps" to prevent the employee from doing the discriminatory act or from doing anything of that description. 

A company must avoid discriminating against same sex partners by ensuring that "plus ones" are not limited to husbands and wives.  You should also make sure the venue is suitable for people with a disability so that the party is accessible to all.  One of the key policies that we encourage all clients to put in place is an equal opportunities policy.  This policy establishes the minimum standards of behaviour expected by an employer and discourages discriminatory behaviour and attitudes.  In order to rely on this policy it should be promoted to staff, training should be offered to managers and a consistent approach must be adopted by the company with respect to any breaches of the policy.  These measures would count towards the "reasonable steps" necessary to avoid liability for individual employee's actions.

Risk assessment

Even if the event is outside of the office, you are responsible for the health and safety of your employees.  Considerations should include:

  • Any hazards at the venue (especially with party shoes on!)
  • Employee safety when going home after the party – consider issuing a warning against drink-driving or accepting lifts from drunk drivers. 


Providing employees with some celebratory drinks is seen as a traditional way of rewarding employees for their hard work throughout the year and is a boost to employee morale.  However you may want to consider limiting the amount of free alcohol available (i.e. through the use of drinks tickets) rather than having a free bar throughout the evening so that things do not get out of control.  Be respectful of employees who choose not to drink, for religious reasons or otherwise, by providing a choice of soft drinks and make sure that no alcohol is given to employees under the age of 18.  By only offering a reward in the form of alcohol, this can be seen as less favourable treatment by those employees who choose not to drink so ensure that there are other events in the calendar that do not revolve around alcohol.  This will encourage participation from all staff, regardless of their religion. 


At the risk of sounding like Scrooge, we advise you to avoid the mistletoe as it can lead to lewd comments, unwanted conduct and subsequent allegations of sexual harassment.  

Avoid work discussions

It is tempting to revert to discussions about work and employers can often find themselves in discussions with an employee about their performance at work or their salary.  These are matters that should be discussed with the employee privately at a formal appraisal so avoid being drawn into such conversations.  You may also want to arrange for the management to be briefed beforehand on the dangers of alcohol-fuelled work discussions and how best to avoid these.

Social media

Following a successful party, the conversations on social media often continue and this is when allegations of harassment and bullying on social media sites can arise.  Provide employees with guidance about their use of social media and, if you do not already have one, we would advise you to put in place a company policy addressing social media in the workplace.


Employees waking up with a sore head the next morning will be very tempted to "pull a sickie".  Employees should be informed that usual disciplinary rules apply over the festive period and unauthorised absence will not be tolerated. 

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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