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There have been many questions raised over who is responsible for staff behaviour and welfare during work social events and it often comes down to what type of event it is.

Who is responsible for incidents at work events?

Employers might be found vicariously liable (i.e. the employer is responsible) for an incident caused by its employees at a social event that can genuinely be classed as an extension of employment. This would include incidents at office parties, client functions and work-organised social events such as leaving parties or drinks.

The employer would therefore be held vicariously liable for inappropriate behaviour by an employee which could include reckless sexual harassment or activity that leads to injury of another colleague or a member of public.

The employer wouldn’t necessarily be responsible for any incidents which occurred as a result of a chance or informal meet up of colleagues.

Employers can also be liable if they engage an ‘agent’ who behaves inappropriately. An agent is someone appointed by the employer to act on its behalf in dealings with employees or other parties. For example, an external consultant engaged to help carry out redundancies or union representatives carrying out the union’s work with its members.

What the law says

Section 109 of the Equality Act 2010:

  • Anything done by a person (A) in the course of A’s employment must be treated as also done by the employer.
  • It does not matter whether that thing is done with the employer’s or principal’s knowledge or approval.
  • In proceedings against A’s employer (B) in respect of anything alleged to have been done by A in the course of A’s employment it is a defence for B to show that B took all reasonable steps to prevent A:
    • from doing that thing, or
    • from doing anything of that description.

So, if an employee behaves inappropriately the employer is vicariously liable for that behaviour, provided the employee was ‘acting in the course of their employment’.

The employer is vicariously liable even if they were unaware of the behaviour or actions. They can only avoid vicarious liability by showing they took all reasonable steps to prevent the employee doing the act in question.

Examples of employers Liability at work social events

The Bellman v Northampton case demonstrates how complex employer’s liability can be at social events. In this case the Court of Appeal overturned a decision to find a recruitment company vicariously liable for a staff member’s brain damage. The Managing Director (Mr Major) had arranged taxis from the Christmas party onto a hotel and the company paid for most of the drinks at the hotel bar, when at around 3am an argument broke out about a new employment placement. Mr Major began to lecture all the staff about his authority. Mr Bellman (the Sales Manager) disagreed with him which led to Mr Major punching him twice, ultimately causing brain damage. The court originally decided that the company was not responsible for the incident ruling that the incident happened at an unplanned event and not at the Christmas party. The Court of Appeal however ruled that Mr Major was the most senior employee so had full control over how he conducted his role and there was sufficient connection between his conduct and his role.

The employer was not held vicariously liable however in the Shelbourne v Cancer Research (UK), here an employee was lifted on the dancefloor and injured by a visiting scientist at a Christmas party. The scientist had been drinking and picking up other colleagues without injury, when he tried to pick up the claimant. The court rejected her claim on the basis that the company had taken sufficient risk assessments prior to the event, they had arranged security to ensure the wellbeing of staff and restrict access to the work laboratories and asked all staff to sign a written declaration around acceptable behaviour. The court ruled that the company didn’t need to consider what might happen if someone who had been drinking alcohol act recklessly on the dancefloor as the scientist who was invited as a guest had not displayed any inappropriate behaviour or had any complaints about his behaviour previously.

A Detective Constable who was seconded to branches of the Regional Crime Squad complained of sexual harassment by colleagues at drinks in the pub immediately after work. In the case of Chief Constable of Lincolnshire Constabulary v Stubbs and others (1991), the employer was held vicariously liable for this harassment by the tribunal ruling that “whilst the parties were not actually at work when this incident happened, it happened in the course of employment in the broad sense. The applicant would not have been in the presence of {DS Walker} had she not been working with him. Attending a public house for relaxation immediately after the end of the working day is, in our view, merely an extension of employment.”  The complexity of this case came from who the employer was at the time of the harassment due to the secondment of the officers and ultimately there were appeals as to who was responsible for the officers’ actions, however the tribunals decision was upheld.

Things to consider when planning a work party

If you’re planning a work social event there are some things that we would recommend to limit your liability:

Provide options – ensure that there are non-alcoholic drinks available.

Limit access to alcohol – consider offering drinks vouchers rather than an open bar, or encourage employees to consume alcohol slowly by spacing out drinks provided.

Travel – if you’re holding an event a long distance from your place of work or public transport explore travel provisions, consider your start / finish times to make sure people can get there and back safely.

Cater for allergies – make sure you cater for all dietary requirements

Accessibility – make sure public areas are clear of obstructions and any disabilities are catered for and restrict access to any areas of risk to safety of individuals or company information.

Social media – remind all attendees of your social media policy.

Security – if you’re serving alcohol at a private party, consider hiring additional security in case anyone behaves recklessly.

Conditions – Remind employees that they are still representing the company and should behave accordingly. You might want to incorporate these into the invite or request that they sign a declaration to confirm they understand them prior to the event.

 

If you’ve been injured at work or a work social event you may be able to make a claim for compensation from your employer, get in contact with our experts today to find out how.

 

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