Avoid being labelled the ‘Christmas Grinch’ – prepare your workplace for the Christmas Season festivities now

Christmas is nearly here again and with it comes one of the most loved workplace traditions – the office Christmas party. Whether your function takes place at work or offsite, Christmas parties will be within the realm of the employment relationship, and even ‘after parties’ can be. This means that it is important to ensure that everybody understands what is, and more importantly, what is not, acceptable behaviour at such functions.

The responsibility of employers

Employers have a responsibility to do everything reasonable to protect the health and safety of their staff while they are at work, which extends to work-related events, and employers can be held vicariously liable for the conduct of their employees. Employers are expected to know that Christmas parties can be a ‘magnet’ for outlandish misconduct.

Areas that warrant extra attention around this time of year include the usual suspects such as responsible alcohol consumption and avoiding sexual harassment incidents, but you should also consider more subtle risks – for example, relating to the use of social media. What is your social media policy for your work event? While you can’t control what people might post on social media, you can make your expectations and requirements clear. This is important to avoid liability for the potential negative effects on employees and also for any discussions or disciplinary processes that need to be had with anyone who posts inappropriate content.

Practical tips to manage the risks

Ideally, you will have up-to-date policies in place in relation to appropriate workplace behaviour extending to cover Christmas festivities (and hold workplace behaviour refresher training at suitable intervals). However, often workplace policies and procedures don’t adequately deal with a party environment. For example, a drug and alcohol policy might prohibit the consumption of alcohol outright, which obviously can’t apply when you are providing alcohol at a work function.

For this reason it is well worth sending out a reminder to staff in the lead up to the Christmas party season, not only to remind them about relevant policies, but also to clarify expectations at such events. At the end of this article we have included a sample generic message that you can tailor and use for this purpose.

Think practically. It is very important to ensure that the environment you create for your party is consistent with the standards set out in your email and in your policies. The best policies and procedures in the world will not save you if you allow inappropriate behaviour to occur or create an inappropriate environment. This was highlighted by the Fair Work Commission in Keenan v Leighton Boral Amey Joint Venture [2015] FWC 3156.  In that case, in assessing the behaviour of an employee at a Christmas party, the FWC determined that the employee was unfairly dismissed despite his inappropriate behaviour (which primarily involved groping and sexually suggestive discussions at an ‘after party’), taking into account that the employer had acted unreasonably by providing unlimited alcohol and failed to adequately monitor the intake of the alcohol or the behaviour of the employees present.

Consider providing cab charges to discourage drink driving and make sure that someone oversees alcohol consumption and monitors behaviour. Ask yourself, if someone behaves dangerously or offensively, what will you do about it?

If complaints of inappropriate workplace behaviour at a work party are made, it is critical that your organisation deals with them appropriately. Depending on the circumstances, this may only require some preliminary inquiries and discussions with those concerned, or it may require an investigation and disciplinary action.

If you have any queries or would like further information regarding this article, please contact:

David Dilger
Partner
M: 0428 238 819
E: ddilger@pageseager.com.au

Rod Collinson
Partner
M: 0430 221 067
E: rcollinson@pageseager.com.au

Luke Gattuso
Partner
M: 0411 989 292
E: lgattuso@pageseager.com.au

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Example message to staff to help proactively manage this year’s social events:

“Dear staff [or however you normally address them]

The Christmas party is now only [time – eg a couple of days away, next week, etc], so it is that time again where I communicate some of the aspects of the party which will allow everyone to have a great night and get home safely.

General Behaviour

Everyone has a duty of care in relation to health and safety, so please look after yourself and each other during the night.
Please make sure that you familiarise yourself with the [applicable policy/ procedure].  It is available [location – eg intranet link or hardcopy placed somewhere].

Alcohol

If you are planning to drink alcohol, please ensure that you drink responsibly.  There will be plenty of non-alcoholic drinks available on the night and there will also be plenty of food, so please make sure you eat properly.

Transport

If you are drinking alcohol you should not drive.  Please make sure you have pre-arranged a safe mode of transport home [or if the company is providing transport or cab vouchers etc, set out details here].

Photographs

[If relevant, refer to company camera in use during the night to capture the evening etc].

If you take photos on the night, make sure you get permission from those in the photos before uploading onto Facebook or other social media sites. You should familiarise yourself with the [applicable policy/ procedure].  It is available [location – eg intranet link or hardcopy placed somewhere].

Contacts

If you have any concerns about the above, or have any issues on the night, please talk to [nominated responsible people etc]. Also, if one of these people ask you to not do something or behave in line with our expectations, please do so without any ‘fuss’.

Above all, have a great night and please stay safe.”

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