Many employers are rewarding their staff by hosting a Christmas party, but gross misconduct is a risk.

Whilst this is no doubt a time for staff bonding, laughing and joking (often whilst  recollecting the humorous stories at work this year), let’s rewind 12 months to a case in late 2016.

This case illustrates that whilst a Christmas party is an event where everyone lets their hair down, employers should be mindful that this is a work-related event and as such, they can be held responsible for the actions of their staff if things kick off (also known as vicarious liability).

The key question for vicarious liability is whether the offender was acting in their personal capacity, or in the course of their employment.

Bellman was about a Christmas party hosted by Northampton Recruitment for their staff and guests. The party which was at a Golf Club, proved uneventful. But after the party, a number of guests travelled to a local hotel, where the party continued. At this after-party, the MD assaulted a member of staff (leaving him with brain damage) because he felt his authority was being challenged at work.

The High Court found that Northampton was not vicariously liable for the assault. The judge described the after-party as not a company event and so Mr Major’s conduct was not in the course of his employment. The judge’s reasoning was that the after-party was ‘an entirely independent, voluntary and discreet early hours drinking session of a very different nature to the Christmas party and unconnected with the or employer’s business’.

This decision shows that if the incident had taken place at the Christmas party, then the employer would have been responsible for gross misconduct that resulted.


All employers should be wary of Christmas party gross misconduct. Employers should take all reasonable steps to ensure misconduct (especially gross misconduct) does not occur, such as:

  1. Ensuring their equal opportunities policy is up to date; and
  2. Providing training to staff (e.g. on anti-discriminatory practices, and on bullying and harassment).

Such measures would reduce the likelihood of an employer being held vicariously liable for the gross misconduct of their staff.

Case report: Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd

by Zahid Reza

Image used under CC courtesy of Bill Tyne