Employer guidance on Christmas party conduct

Posted Dec 22, 2016

Is the Christmas party over?

A very useful and timely piece of guidance has been provided this December by the High Court regarding employers liability for injuries caused outside of the workplace at company events. The case in question arose from a festive fall out at a works Christmas party. This guidance could not have come at a better time for employers as the Christmas party season is just getting into full swing. Whilst Christmas is an exciting time for employees who have waited all year to let their hair down, we recognise that it can leave HR departments pulling their hair out!

The High court has provided us with some very timely guidance in their decision on the 1st December 2016 in the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd [2016] EWHC 3104 (QB). In its judgement the High Court provided guidance on where the line should be drawn between what happens in the workplace and what happens outside.

To set the scene, Mr Bellman attended the annual office Christmas party as many of us do at this time of year. Unfortunately for Mr Bellman his annual works Christmas festivities ended in a punch up leaving him with severe injuries including brain damage. This incident involved a friend of his, Mr John Major, who also happened to be the managing director of the company for which he worked. The Christmas party was organised by his employer and as such the question was raised – Could the company, Northampton recruitment, be legally responsible for the injuries sustained by Mr Bellam?

The High Court decided that in the circumstances of this case there was no liability on the employer’s part. This decision turns a corner from previous cases where it has been held that employers will be liable for the conduct of their employees where it occurs in the course of their employment, including officially sanctioned work functions. The difficulty in the past has been deciding where to draw the line between what happens in the workplace and what happens outside.  The decision in this new case suggests that, moving forward, it is far less likely that an employer’s legal responsibility will extend to post-function events that are not officially approved or sanctioned.

Despite giving employers more room to breathe, it was highlighted in the judgment that there are no hard and fast rules in this area, and so we would remind employers to remain cautious. Therefore, whilst this case provides some comfort to employers, when donning the party hat, it is best to remain mindful.

So this Christmas period remember to provide guidelines to employees outlining what is expected when attending out of hour’s events that are connected to work. This can be as simple as a friendly email to staff reminding them have fun, eat, drink, and be merry but most importantly of all to stay sensible.

Amy Labram – Employment law at Bendles LLP

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