Chaos at the Christmas Party: How to avoid an HR headache this festive season

The Christmas season is almost upon us, bringing with it the long awaited office Christmas party. This is often the highlight of the work calendar; offering a chance for colleagues to let their hair down and enjoy themselves in a more relaxed setting. Although generally being a great way to reward staff for their hard work over the past year, the mix of lowered inhibitions and large amounts of alcohol can often lead to trouble.

One interesting case which involves a Christmas party going badly wrong is Westlake v ZSL London Zoo (ET/2201118/2015). This case involves a love triangle at the ZSL London Zoo and a fight which took place at its Christmas party a couple of years ago. The llama keeper at the Zoo (Mr Davies) had previously been in a relationship with one of the monkey specialists (Ms Saunders). However, they had since broken up, and at the time of the incident Mr Davies was in a relationship with the meerkat handler (Ms Westlake). The Christmas party was held at the Zoo with employees given a drinks voucher as well as being able to purchase more drinks from the bar.

The break-up had obviously not gone well, as at the party Ms Saunders and Ms Westlake got into a fight. This resulted in Ms Saunders being quite seriously injured after being hit in the face with a glass. Ms Westlake was also injured during the altercation. After the party the company began its disciplinary procedure. The decision was made that Ms Westlake would be dismissed, but Ms Saunders would be issued with a final warning, along with being banned from future work events.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ms Westlake brought a claim in the Employment Tribunal for unfair dismissal due to the fact that her punishment had been much more severe than that for Ms Saunders. The tribunal found that there was not sufficient evidence to determine who had initiated the fight, and because of this it found that the dismissal had indeed been unfair. However, the tribunal did also note that the Zoo could have legitimately dismissed both of the employees or given them both final warnings.

This case demonstrates the perils of the Christmas party and the possible risks surrounding it. In light of this, here are some tips to prevent chaos at your Christmas party this year:
• Be wary of the open bar – although often a perk of the event, any employees that end up drinking too much and making a fool of themselves may be able to show that the company has condoned their behaviour by offering unlimited alcohol.
• If misconduct such as that in Westlake v ZSL occurs, make sure to carry out a reasonable and fair investigation before any disciplinary action is taken.
• Employees should be given equal opportunities/diversity and anti-harassment training and evidence should be kept of this.
• It may also be helpful to have a clear policy on what standard of behaviour is acceptable at work events/office parties. Employers could also consider issuing a statement to employees in advance of any event reminding them of possible conduct issues.

Whilst most office parties will be an enjoyable experience for all, making sure there are clear policies in place can help to prevent any possible HR headaches.


Merry Christmas!
For further information, please contact Koichiro Nakada – Head of Japan Business Group (koichiro.nakada@lewissilkin.com) and Yoko Nakada - Senior Associate, Deputy Head of Japan Business Group (yoko.nakada@lewissilkin.com).
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