Clifford Gouldson Lawyers

The Office Christmas Party - Protecting your staff and business

Print Version

3/12/2012

The Christmas season is in full swing and with it brings an increase in the likelihood of a workplace claim arising from inappropriate workplace conduct such as harassment, sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination, workplace health and safety issues.

The holiday season does not provide an excuse for inappropriate behaviour and employers are well advised to ensure that they are aware of their obligations to employees at any work functions - such as the office Christmas party.

Who is responsible?

Employers have been found to be liable for an employee’s inappropriate conduct or statements that occur at work-related events; this includes both planned and unplanned events. Under anti-discrimination laws, an employer can be held vicariously liable for the actions of its employees in relation to harassment, sexual harassment or discrimination committed ‘in the course of employment’.

Work Christmas parties are likely to be deemed to be employer-sponsored events that occur ‘in the course of employment’; this means that the employer is responsible for employee behaviour at the staff Christmas party.  It is worth remembering that employers are responsible for the conduct of their employees at all work related events, both on-site and off-site in addition to unplanned and spontaneous events that may occur, for example, after a client meeting.

Tips to help employers reduce risk

Employers need to be proactive to protect themselves from a potential claim brought about by the action of their employees. Because of the connection between the workplace and the event, policies relating to bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination, work health and safety still apply.

Injuries suffered at the Christmas party or other workplace event can be the subject of a workers' compensation claim against the employer. Obligations to prevent sexual harassment or bullying also apply at the Christmas party and the responsible service of alcohol must be taken into account when managing these risks.

What are ‘Reasonable Steps’?

Possible ‘reasonable steps’ an employer could take to reduce risk include:

  • Ensuring that employees are made aware that the Christmas party is a work event and that responsible and respectful behaviour is required by all attendees;
  • Advising employees that unplanned and spontaneous functions or events may also be work related and that workplace policies and rules therefore apply;
  • Ensuring that everyone in the workplace is aware of the relevant workplace policies and knows that these policies continue to apply at work events;
  • Sending an email to all employees prior to the event to remind them of their responsibilities at the Christmas party and to refresh them of the relevant workplace policies on, for example, workplace health & safety, anti-discrimination, sexual harassment and social media;
  • Ensuring that workplace policies are up-to-date and easily accessible (if you don’t have any we recommend that you create and implement them in your workplace);
  • Providing training where required to enable employees to adhere to workplace policies and behaviour standards;
  • Reminding employees that their failure to observe the employer's policies during the event may be used by the employer as a basis for disciplinary action which could lead to termination;
  • Identifying any potential hazards by performing a risk assessment of the party venue;
  • Ensuring the responsible service of alcohol, food and non-alcoholic drinks are available and under-age employees do not have access to alcohol;
  • Setting specific start and finish times for the Christmas party and specifying that any ‘after party’ events that may follow on after the party’s designated finishing time are undertaken by the employees’ in their own time and are not employer endorsed;
  • Organising travel arrangements or providing options for employees to travel home safely (i.e. taxis or public transport) after the Christmas party;
  • Identifying and designating a responsible contact person at the event to oversee the party, keep an eye on employee behaviour and provide assistance if employees have any concerns;
  • Reviewing your applicable employer insurance policies to see if the proposed function is covered.

If you have any questions in relation to this bulletin then please do not hesitate to contact any of the members of CG Law's workplace relations team.

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