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Office Christmas parties: Do's and don'ts for employers

AuthorsChristine Hart

6 min read


Office Christmas parties Dos and donts for employers

Even without the issues surrounding COVID-19, employee Christmas parties can pose problems for employers. However, preparation beforehand and swift action if a problem does occur can minimise the potential risks.

Work parties can be a great way to team build and boost morale by rewarding employees for their hard work throughout the year. However, they also pose legal risks of potential employment claims due to issues such as sexual harassment, bullying, alcohol-fuelled arguments, discrimination and unauthorised absenteeism.

As a result, it is recommended that employers take a moment to consider the potential employment law issues that may arise over the festive period and how some simple practical steps can help to reduce those risks.

Working time

The most important thing employers need to be alive to is that even if office parties are held off site, and outside of office hours, the event can still be considered ‘working time’. This means that employers may be liable for incidents that occur at the party even in the absence of managers.

Party Invitations

Many employees may not celebrate Christmas for religious or other reasons, and as a result, employers should be careful to not exclude these employees from the festivities. Rather than referring to the event as a ‘Christmas party’, it may be preferable to use an alternative label such as ‘festive party’ or ‘holiday party’. These labels may encourage greater inclusivity and result in more employees attending.

Further, some employees may not consume alcohol due to religious reasons, as a result we recommend that soft drinks are offered as an alternative to ensure that all attendees’ needs are catered for. The same goes for any dietary requirements.

Consideration should also be given to the timing of the event, as some employees may have caring responsibilities. As a result, if the event is taking place outside of working hours, you may wish to make it clear that attendance is voluntary or discuss the timing of the event in advance to gain an understanding of availability.


As the Christmas party will be considered to amount to working time, it is recommended that employers ensure they have adequate rules, guidelines and policies in place, which effectively communicate to employees what is acceptable behaviour and what is not.

The communication to employees should also reference relevant policies and procedures in place including those dealing with equal opportunities, anti-bullying and harassment, alcohol and substance misuse and the employers’ disciplinary rules.

It is important that all of these policies are adhered to. The fact that employees are attending a works party does not mean that these policies will not apply. This does mean that if rules and policies are breached at the festive party the employer will need to act swiftly to ensure that the appropriate action is taken in a fair, reasonable and consistent manner. The fact that an alleged breach occurred at a works party is not a defence.

The important point is to strike the right balance between ensuring rules and policies are adhered to but without dampening the festive spirit.


As the festive party can blur the lines between professional and personal lives, especially when alcohol is involved, employers should be aware of the issue of harassment and what steps can be taken to prevent this from occurring. Harassment is defined as any ‘unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity or creating a hostile or intimidating environment’, and this conduct occurs as a result of a person’s protected characteristic, such as age, sex or religious belief.

Tips for avoiding vicarious liability as a result of harassment include ensuring that all attendees are aware of the behaviour expected of them through clearly communicated policies, and also taking immediate action in relation to any incidents that occur. Many employers find it useful to send an email a day or two before the party to attendees reminding them of the “dos and don’ts”.

Social media

Many employees may be tempted to post photographs of colleagues taken at the festive party on their respective social media accounts. These photos may damage the employer’s reputation or infringe on the privacy rights of employees. Therefore it is advisable to clearly communicate to employees whether social media postings are permissible, either through a general policy or specific email sent before the event.

The morning after

Employers should be clear what is expected of employees the day following the party. For example, if the next day is a working day, employers may wish to permit a slightly later start time. Regardless of the approach to be taken, employees should be made aware of the employer’s attitude towards lateness or absenteeism the following day, including the possible consequences of failing to meet the standard required. This clear communication will leave the employer with a range of options in terms of disciplinary action should employees fall short of the mark by turning up late or taking a day’s sick leave.


This year, a Christmas party article would not be complete without the mention of COVID-19.

Although initially mixed messages were given by Ministers, the Prime Minister has made it clear that “we don’t want people to cancel such events.” However, people are being reminded to follow the government guidance on matters such as handwashing and ventilation and are being advised to take a lateral flow test before they go to a party or other crowded place. As the COVID-19 situation develops, this guidance could be subject to change.

Despite this, we recommend that employers give consideration to what risks are posed by the gathering, and what steps can be taken to minimise them. This may include asking all attendees to take a lateral flow test before the event or making it clear that attendance is not mandatory should some staff members feel nervous at the prospect of meeting up where there is a risk of infection.

Some employers have changed their plans and are holding their festive events outside where the risks of catching the virus are reduced, or returning to a virtual event as many did in 2020.

While the above advice may echo the sentiments of Ebenezer Scrooge, a little forethought and planning from employers can result in everyone enjoying a safe and enjoyable festive party after what has been for many a particularly demanding and difficult year.

Please do not hesitate to contact a member of our Employment Team if you have any queries or require our support to ensure that you are fully prepared for any issues which may arise.

In the meantime we hope that you and your colleagues have a very Happy Christmas!

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