Beware the Office Christmas Party

By 4 December 2019Workplace
Office Christmas Party

As a workplace lawyer, January can be a busy time assisting employers manage issues that arose from their office Christmas parties.

Here are some tips to avoid a lingering Christmas party hangover at your workplace!

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 steps to minimise your risks should something go wrong?

There are many court decisions dealing with claims arising from 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, employers can be held liable for out of office conduct. For example, in Vegara v Ewin [2014] FCAFC 100, 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 [2016] 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 responsibly at a staff event.

Similarly, in Keenan v Leighton Boral Amey NSW Pty Ltd [2015] 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 Ted from accounts decides it’s time to let his hair down, copy the Full Monty dance routine and make his move on Mary from marketing, consider taking the following steps to avoid post party blues:

  • ensure it is made clear that attendance is voluntary;
  • make your expectations clear with employees – remind them that employer policies and procedures continue to apply and set clear expectations for behaviour (an all-staff email can be useful evidence of this reminder);
  • set clear expectations about the use of social media and 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/beach parties 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 drink vouchers so staff are limited in the number of free alcoholic beverages 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 responsibility to set a good example and monitor the welfare of staff during the function, and have an action plan in place to manage any concerns;
  • make the start and end times of the function clear;
  • arrange appropriate transportation home after the function ends; and
  • review your relevant insurance policies and confirm that the proposed function is covered.

In the event of an issue arising from the office Christmas party, ensure it is managed appropriately and in accordance with relevant policies and procedures. Should enquiries reveal inappropriate conduct by staff at the party you should seek advice before deciding on appropriate action. The line between what is work-related, what is not and what is unreasonable behaviour in all circumstances, can be difficult to identify.

If you would like more information or to seek advice, please phone us on 1300 068 736.

This publication has been carefully prepared, but it has been written in 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.

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