Living it largeGenerosity from employers at Christmas time is entirely discretionary – encouraged no doubt by a tax break which allows them to spend up to £150 per employee on entertainment, tax-free. It would be extremely unusual for employees to have a contractual right to a Christmas party, so they cannot insist on their employer throwing a party. However, if the same type of Christmas party has always been held, there might be an argument that such a term has arisen. At the very least, an employer who was planning on changing the traditional festive social should talk to staff about this first. But perhaps the writing has been on the wall for a few years now, as employers have increasingly sought to control the legal risks of Christmas at work, with HR sending around lists of “dos and don’ts” for weeks beforehand.
It seems likely that the #MeToo movement was the final nail in the coffin. The potentially toxic mix of plentiful alcohol and reduced inhibitions is fertile ground for misplaced humour or unwanted touching – leading to legal liability for discrimination or sexual harassment for employers. And liability seems to be extending further and further. A couple of months ago, the Court of Appeal ruled that a company was liable for the actions of its managing director during a drinking session which took place after the work’s Christmas party. An argument began about internal work policies, and the managing director punched an employee, causing him brain damage. Perhaps understandably, the risks of staff socialising together just seem to outweigh the benefits for an increasing number of employers. But does this new Puritanism risk throwing the baby out with the bath water?