The Christmas party: Golden rules for employers

It’s the countdown to the end of the year and businesses across Australia have, most likely, planned a staff get together to celebrate the year and to eat, drink and have fun in the lead up to the fast approaching Christmas holidays.

These end of year events are a perfect opportunity for staff to unwind. Christmas functions however, do carry an increased likelihood of safety-related incidents and other risks such as sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination.  Such an outcome can in turn become an employer’s worst nightmare.

Recent Federal Court decisions have significantly increased the damages awards given to employees who suffer harassment or sexual harassment.  It is no longer the case that these claims can be resolved for a small “go away” payment.

Remember, while an end of year function may be a social event, a work sponsored party is still a work function. An employer may still be responsible for the actions of its employees in relation to harassment, sexual harassment or discrimination.  The usual work policies concerning safety, workplace conduct and prohibitions on harassment, sexual harassment and discrimination all still apply (together with vicarious liability on the employer for an employee’s conduct).

Similarly, an employee who injures themselves at the Christmas party may in certain circumstances claim Workers’ Compensation.

One mistake employers can make is permitting unlimited alcohol to be served at a work function. In decided cases over the past years, the Fair Work Commission has acknowledged that supplying unlimited alcohol made it “entirely predictable that some individuals will consume an excessive amount and behave inappropriately”. Similarly, the Fair Work Commission has held that an employee who, at a Christmas function, sexually harassed colleagues and verbally abused his superiors, was unfairly sacked due to his employer providing him with unlimited alcohol.

Unlimited alcohol is a workplace hazard, and requires risk management, just like any other work health and safety hazard.

What to do

Some active steps an employer might adopt in the lead up are:

  1. Have an appropriate and up-to-date workplace behaviour policy in place, make it accessible to staff and provide timely reminders to the staff of its content;
  2. Reinforce for employees that the Christmas party is a work event and that workplace policies and rules of conduct at work apply to the function (reminding them that drunkenness is not an excuse for not complying);
  3. Remind staff that failing to comply with the employer’s policies during the event may be a basis for disciplinary action including (perhaps) dismissal;
  4. Ensure that there is responsible service of alcohol and have plenty of food and non-alcoholic drinks available;
  5. Provide safe options for employees to get home from the function;
  6. Ensure one or more “responsible” persons (like a designated driver) will not drink and will act as a go to for staff throughout the event;
  7. Have a set ending time for the work event portion, and therefore any staff that ‘party on’ are doing so in a social capacity (don’t sponsor or plan the “after party” event); and
  8. Take appropriate and immediate action if inappropriate behaviour occurs.

None of these protections will stop your staff kicking up their heels, celebrating the year, and having a great Christmas Party!

If you do not have a workplace behaviour policy and if you have not held a staff information session about this policy, it is not too late to adopt a policy and provide an information session. If you need our assistance with either of these matters, please contact us without delay.

A merry and safe Christmas Party and festive season to you all.

Disclaimer
This article is general commentary on a topical issue and does not constitute legal advice. If you are concerned about any topics covered in this article, we recommend that you seek legal advice.

Queries
For further information please contact the author, Robert King, Partner – Employment, Workplace Relations & Safety, or Martin Alden, Partner – Employment, Workplace Relations & Safety.

The Authors

Robert King

PARTNER, BRISBANE

Key Contacts

Robert King

PARTNER, BRISBANE

Martin Alden

PARTNER, MELBOURNE