Employers Liabilities at Office Parties
Office Parties. What are the employer’s liabilities regarding any unwanted/unlawful behavior by its employees, and what steps can it take to mitigate those liabilities? Christmas has just been, and integral to that is the celebrated “office party”. The confluence of the exuberant nature the occasion and the fact that drink is usually readily available and paid for by the employer can make for a heady cocktail of employee conduct which they would not normally indulge in. 1. So what are the employers’ liabilities in respect of their employees’ unwanted or unlawful conduct at the office party? An employer will be held to be vicariously liable for the acts of their employees if those are “in the course of employment”, unless the employer took all reasonably practicable steps to stop/avoid those. Despite the party often being outwith both the physical confines of the office and normal working hours, case law has determined that such events will usually be deemed to be “in the course of employment” because the individuals who are present are primarily there because of their employment. Attempts to label any after-party as “not in the course of employment” are likely to be ineffective, as the reality of the situation will be the determining factor in that, rather than the label. 2. Apart from abandoning the practice of holding the party, what can an employer do to avoid liability for any unlawful conduct of it employees? “All reasonably practicable steps to stop/avoid those” will generally require that the employer has provided training to its employees in this regard, and maintains, and enforces, policies to protect harassment. Warnings sent to employees before the party stating which kinds of conduct will represent “misconduct” and “gross misconduct” will serve as a defence for the employer if such conduct subsequently occurs. It is an impossible task for an employer to eliminate such employee conduct, or the possibility of it being held liable for that. The best it can do is to take the above preventative steps which will serve as a defence should it be required to advance one.