Can an employee be fairly dismissed for behaviour at a Christmas party?

An exploration of how an individual's actions at a work Christmas party had severe consequences.

6 December 2023

Work Christmas party

Christmas parties are a great opportunity for employees to relax and socialise with colleagues in a less formal environment. HR teams, however, are well aware of the potential issues which can arise when (as often is the case) alcohol is thrown into the mix.

We discuss one such case: Gimson v Display by Design Ltd [ET/1900336/2012] below, which is a real-life case of a Christmas party, which caused a real headache.

Firstly, it is a worthwhile reminder that even at an external venue (and potentially after the official event has finished) an employer can still dismiss an employee if they commit gross misconduct (for example, physical violence).

When an employee claims that they have been unfairly dismissed and have more than 2 years’ service, the employer will need to show that they had a fair reason to dismiss the employee and the Tribunal will need to be satisfied the employer acted reasonably in doing so.

Mr Gimson was walking home with his colleagues after their office Christmas party. An argument broke out between Mr Gimson and his colleague, which resulted in him punching another colleague in the face who was trying to defuse the situation. The employer instigated its disciplinary procedure. From the investigation, it was found that there was no provocation and Mr Gimson was summarily dismissed for gross misconduct.

Mr Gimson raised an employment tribunal claim against his employer, alleging he had been unfairly dismissed. He argued that: (a) the incident did not happen at work; and (b) his punishment was too severe.

The employment tribunal held that the events after the work Christmas party were sufficiently closely connected to work to impact the working environment, and Mr Gimson’s dismissal was a reasonable response.

The tribunal found that had these employees not been at the Christmas work party, they would not have been together, and therefore the assault would not have happened. The tribunal also found that the dismissal was a reasonable response to Mr Gimson’s misconduct and rejected Mr Gimson’s unfair dismissal claim.

Christmas parties are usually great fun and should be events which employees look forward to. However, employers should ensure that employees know how they are expected to behave (explained in relevant policies) and be aware that if they behave inappropriately at, or after, a Christmas party, they may be disciplined or dismissed.

Employees should remember that a party is an extension of the workplace and if the behaviour in question would not be appropriate in the office, it likely will not be appropriate at the Christmas party either.

If you have queries relating to employee misconduct or disciplinary procedures, please get in touch with a member of our employment team.

This article was co-authored by Izzy Linton, a Trainee in our employment team.