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Beware legal traps in your end-of-year festivities

Party season is upon us and as we celebrate Christmas and the year’s end, it’s important to bear legal obligations in mind when hosting the all important office Christmas party.

Unfortunately, this time of year can lead to excessive alcohol consumption and inappropriate office behaviour, often documented across social media channels, creating tension in the office or worse still, legal implications for those involved.

Without the right legal advice and protection, it’s often the employer who is liable for any misconduct leading to injury or abuse at the office Christmas party.

Health and safety laws and the welfare of employees are still the responsibility of the employer at the office Christmas party even if it’s outside of working hours and off workplace premises. Workers Compensation and Occupational Health and Safety laws continue to cover employees at sanctioned Christmas functions, and in some instances can include situations where employees making their way home or remaining at a venue beyond the organised function suffer workplace injuries, bullying or assault.

Making the most of social time with colleagues without policing the party is a fine balance made all the more complicated by social media which has the potential to ‘broadcast’ evidence of inappropriate behaviour globally within seconds.

To avoid liability this festive season it’s important for employers to set boundaries and understand their rights and the rights of their employees.

Responsible service of alcohol

The responsible service of alcohol is often a grey area when it comes to the office Christmas party. While employees are expected to know their own limits, it is important to note that an employer is ultimately responsible for behaviour and service of alcohol. If cutting costs means having a Christmas party in the office, the lines are all the more blurred.

  • Ensure alcohol is served responsibly by providing an appropriate amount of food, and predetermined travel arrangements to ensure employees have safe travel options to return home.
  • Be aware of actions such as placing a tab behind a bar, particularly at an after party. This may encourage excessive drinking and could give rise to liability for behaviour into the early hours of the morning.
  • If Christmas celebrations are held in the office, the person serving alcohol must be covered by an RSA licence and must not consume alcohol before or during the event.

Appropriate workplace behaviour

Most employees have a firm understanding of appropriate workplace behaviour, however it is a good idea to remind them of the expected standard of behaviour in the lead up to the function and encourage responsible behaviour by practising what you preach.

  • Send an email to all staff prior to the Christmas function to ensure they are aware of their obligations under company policies and procedures and remind them of the expected standard of behaviour.
  • If you do not have any policies relating to discrimination, sexual harassment, drug and alcohol use or employee conduct in general, it is important to seek legal advice from a workplace specialist.

When the party’s over

If an employee chooses to continue to consume alcohol and party after the official office Christmas party has concluded, an employer may be liable for their behaviour if they haven’t set time parameters for the function. The ‘8 till late’ lingo on an invitation may leave you liable for incidents well after the clock strikes 12.

  • Clearly state the commencing and concluding times of the function on the invitation or email to employees. Many employers may fall into a litigation trap if they fail to provide specific times. If a timeframe is not specified, an employer is liable for any misconduct even after the official office function has concluded. Confirm with employees in writing when the official function ends, and that any activities they choose to undertake following that time (or venue) are not the responsibility of the employer.

Christmas is a time to let your hair down and enjoy the company of those you work with, but getting the balance right is the key to a successful party for all involved.

Nicholas Duggal is a workplace legal expert and partner at TressCox Lawyers

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