It’s the end of the year and staff are keen to let off steam at the office Christmas party. The venue has been selected and Santa organised-but have you taken risks to minimise your risks should something go wrong?
There are many court decisions dealing with claims arising from the end of year office celebrations where employers have been found vicariously liable for the actions of an employee. From work health and safety, workers compensation, sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying claims employers can be exposed to serious damages.
If the out of hours conduct is found to have a relevant connection to the employment relationship or the “workplace”, employers can be held liable for out of office conduct.
In Vergara v Ewin  FCAFC 2014, the actions of a sub-contractor sexually harassing an employee at a hotel across the road from the office and on the street outside the office were found to have occurred at the “workplace”.
There is an expectation that employers take appropriate steps to manage the risks associated with an office party. In McDaid v Future Engineering and Communication Pty Ltd  FWC 343 despite finding that McDaid had not been unfairly dismissed for inappropriate behaviour at an office Christmas party, the employer was found to have a responsibility to take steps to ensure that alcohol was served responsibility at a staff event.
Similarly, in Keenan v Leighton BAJV  FWC 3156, it was considered contradictory and self-defeating for an employer to require compliance with its usual standards of behaviour whilst allowing unlimited service of free alcohol at a function.
So before finalising your office Christmas party plans, consider taking the following steps to avoid post-party blues:
- Ensure attendance is voluntary
- Make your expectations clear. Remind employees that employer policies/ procedures continue to apply and set clear expectations for behaviour. An all-staff email can be helpful evidence of this reminder
- Set clear expectations on the use of social media including whether staff are permitted to take and post photos from the party
- Make it clear that the use of illegal drugs and excessive consumption of alcohol is prohibited
- Ensure that staff have access to relevant policies and procedures and understand the consequences if they breach them
- Consider the venue-is it safe and appropriate for staff who have been drinking? Boats and water are probably best avoided!
- Assess the risks involved and take reasonable steps to minimise the risks identified-consider controlling the amount of alcohol consumed by issuing drinks vouchers so staff are limited in the number of free alcoholic drinks they can consume
- Ensure that there is plenty of food and it is served early so staff are not drinking on an empty stomach
- Have plenty of non-alcoholic beverages available
- Task several senior staff members with the responsibility to set a good example and monitor staff welfare during the function and have an action plan to deal with any concerns
- Make the start and end times of the function clear
- Arrange appropriate transportation home after the function ends
- Review your relevant insurance policies and confirm that the proposed function is covered
If an issue arises, ensure that it is managed appropriately and in accordance with relevant policies and procedures. Should enquiries reveal inappropriate conduct by staff at the party get advice before deciding on appropriate action? The line between what is work-related, what is not, and what is unreasonable behaviour in all of the circumstances can be difficult to identify!
This publication has been carefully prepared, but it has been written in brief and general terms and should be viewed as broad guidance only. It does not purport to be comprehensive or to render advice. No one should rely on the information contained in this publication without first obtaining professional advice relevant to their own specific situation.