Employers and employees across Australia are in full preparation mode to celebrate a year of hard work with a Christmas party or social function. As well as making sure everyone has a good time, employers and their staff need to be aware of some of the risks that can arise through social interaction outside the usual work environment, particularly when a drink or two is involved.
“We encourage employers to host a Christmas party or end of year function for employees to celebrate their achievements,” says Senior Employment Relations Adviser from Employsure, Jessica Lestrange. “They just need to consider the risks that can come about in these situations. Many owner-managers don’t realise, but a lot of the legislation which they have to adhere to during the working day applies just as equally to Christmas parties, and ignoring it could lead to costly and time-consuming legal issues,” she said.
Even if employees decide to ‘kick on’ with an after party, Lestrange says, “Employers need to be vigilant in meeting their duty of care.”
“If the work Christmas party is organised and paid for by the employer, the obligations generally remain the same as though it was in the workplace. Employers are therefore advised to clearly outline what is inappropriate behaviour and what the repercussions can be if misconduct takes place,” she said.
The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) says that the definition of the ‘workplace’ — and therefore what constitutes workplace sexual harassment — has become broad due to the increase in digital technology, such as email and social media, which means our working hours are no longer limited to 9-5pm.
Inappropriate sexual behaviour can be a major issue when people are drinking, “Touching people inappropriately on the dancefloor is a classic example,” she adds.
Consumption of alcohol (or drugs).
The festive atmosphere also means there is a high chance of alcohol in the mix, which brings with it additional challenges for employers. For health and safety purposes and in an attempt to reduce the chances of inappropriate conduct, Lestrange says employers should ensure the service of alcohol is responsible and employees have plenty access to water and food, “You might also consider an early cut-off time for the service of alcohol.”
Employers need to apply the same ‘zero tolerance’ approach about the use of illegal drugs. “Being under the influence also includes illegal drugs; so, your drugs and alcohol policy needs to be clear on this, defining what ‘under the influence’ means to your business and making this clear from the outset.”
Getting home safe.
The potential consequences for employers found to be negligent should not be underestimated. If an employee is injured on their way home from the function, the employer could be faced with a workers’ compensation claim. The seriousness of these issues should be enough to encourage employers to take proactive steps to educate and supervise their team. Making appropriate transport arrangements is a highly effective way to minimise the risk: “If someone gets too intoxicated, send them home safely straight away. Don’t let them get behind the wheel.”
Professional and business reputations are at risk. Imagine the difficulty a boss would have managing their team if they drunkenly share inappropriate information about their love life. Other examples might include bumping and grinding on the dancefloor or a solo attempt on the karaoke microphone. “Another good policy to refer to is the Social Media policy to avoid any inappropriate posts from your employees.”
Final word of advice.
The Christmas party is supposed to reward staff for their hard work, and business owners should stress that before laying down the law, “Don’t kill the fun – remind employees it is an enjoyable celebration, and that employees who do not adhere to the policy or code of conduct, spoil the party for everyone,” she said.
“Careful and thoughtful planning can help eliminate the risks in advance and ensure everyone has a safe and enjoyable time.”
For employees, Lestrange says the bottom line is: “No matter how much fun you’re having, you’re still officially at work.”
Jessica Lestrange, Senior Employment Relations Adviser, Employsure.