We all know that end of year Christmas celebrations can be fun, and provide an excellent opportunity to celebrate the achievements of your organisation and staff.
You’ll no doubt spend money, time and effort ensuring the celebration is a success, but make sure you also spend time ensuring the festivities are a positive end to the year for everyone involved.
All employers need to consider the potential hazards which may arise when holding an office Christmas party.
No matter if it’s getting together for casual drinks at the office, a lunch/dinner, an outing or a large function -these events are still considered to be work functions, and there are important legal obligations that you should take into consideration.
While it is well established that an employer’s obligations to protect an employees workplace rights extends outside of work hours; this liability even extends away from the physical premises of your organisation. Yet, it seems that year after year employers are still being faced with the aftermath of the festive season, when Christmas party shenanigans can go horribly wrong. Remember the external function or event need only to be linked with the workplace, for your obligations and liabilities to continue.
Employers can be held liable for injuries suffered by employees travelling to or from a work function, as well as any injury arising from the behaviour of employees during celebrations. “Injuries” can include; suffering from harassment or intimidation, unwanted sexual advances or being subjected to offensive language. All employees attending the party should be made aware of their responsibilities and what is considered appropriate behaviour.
What Employees Should Know
- Consider holding a staff meeting, emailing all of your employees or posting a bulletin, reminding them what is expected of them at your function this year. You may wish to advise your staff of the following;
- A Christmas party is still considered a work activity, and as such, normal disciplinary procedures will apply in the event of any harassment
- If a function is held after hours, or off your organisations physical work premises, the usual standards of behaviour expected during working hours will still apply.
- NB: Remember to advise staff that this conduct also extends to any conduct which may take place after the function ie. posting pictures and/or comments on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter
- Your organisations policies relating drug and alcohol use, bullying, discrimination, sexual harassment, and any other forms misconduct, will still apply to all staff attending the function
- Any employee found to be in breach of these policies, will be subject to disciplinary action.
Fraser Coast Free Range Pty Ltd and Q –Comp (3 July 2009)
In this case, the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) found the employer liable for the worker’s injury which was sustained at a work Christmas party.
An intoxicated worker was injured in a fight at a work Christmas party. The Christmas party was held on the employer’s premises in 2007 and was attended by the director, the worker and approximately 20 other employees and partners.
At the party, a barbeque was provided, together with alcoholic beverages. An altercation broke out between several guests and the worker intervened and was struck in the back. She fell to the ground and sustained a fractured collar bone and an injury to her right eye.
The worker made a claim in her employer for compensation, which was declined. The worker sought a review and Q-Comp accepted her claim. The employer appealed the decision and the matter was heard in the Queensland IRC.
The company director conceded that the worker’s injury occurred in the course of employment however, he argued that her injury was not compensable as she intervened in the fight when he told her not to. The company director also argued that the worker had been drinking heavily, was unsteady on her feet and was “out of control.” He argued that the injury was a “…product of her own actions.”
Commissioner Fisher of the IRC found that the worker had not taken herself outside of the employment relationship by consuming alcohol. Commissioner Fisher found that“alcohol was freely and amply supplied by her employer and nothing was done by [the director] to curb [her] consumption.”
The Commissioner questioned the company director’s recollection of events after hearing that he had consumed four mid-strength beers and eight glasses of vodka. He also accepted the worker had also been impaired by alcohol, but found that the guest involved in the initial altercation was the more likely aggressor in the incident that caused her injuries.
Tips to Ensure Safe Celebrations
Your duty of care under Workers Compensation and Occupational Health and Safety Laws, cover employees at your Christmas functions, making their way home safely.
Give some consideration to the type of function you are holding, and set the tone for the celebration. You may wish to consider;
• If alcohol will be served, ensure it is served responsibly, and that there will be plenty of food and non-alcoholic beverages available.
• Consider if you need to make arrangements to ensure employees can travel safely home. Is there safe public transport available? Do you need to provide a vehicle, book taxis or provide cab-charge vouchers?
• Start and finish times should also be clearly set out, including that, if staff choose to move onto another venue, after your organisations party has ended, the new venue is not part of the work sanctioned Christmas party.
• Remind staff that Kris Kringle/Secret Santa gifts should not be offensive or sexual in nature.
• Suggest a dress code for the party that keeps things professional.
Managing Misconduct Arising from Christmas Parties
If employees do not meet the standards of conduct expected of them, you should ensure that disciplinary action is taken in following days. Do not wait until the New Year to engage formal procedures, unless it is absolutely necessary. Remember, all allegations must be properly investigated before taking serious disciplinary action.
You don’t have to become the Grinch that Stole Christmas, but by putting in place some of these practices and safeguards, will help ensure everyone at your organisation has a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
Oh, and a word from the wise … don’t hang mistletoe in the office or at your party – you’re only asking for trouble! Remember, it’s called “the silly season” for a reason.
If you are concerned about certain aspects of your Christmas function planning, please contact one of INVision’s Directors via our website at www.inv.com.au
Sarah Ralph, Partner Norton Rose, ‘Don’t be the Christmas turkey. Avoiding workplace liability in the festive season’ November 2011
Michael Bracken, Partner Tresscox Lawyers “Not too jolly – Employer liability at the company Christmas function’ December 201
Kevin Dwyer, Warren, McKeon, Dickson Lawyers ‘Employer liability at work Christmas parties’