Businesses will soon be well into the swing of Christmas parties and end of year functions. It’s great to get into the spirit of things but employers need to be mindful that workers are aware of the type of behaviour that is acceptable at work events, especially when the bubbles are flowing and employees are more likely to let their hair down.

Just as is required in the workplace during working hours, business owners have a duty of care to employees at work functions during out of office hours. The same legal rights and obligations apply to both employers and employees at such events, and reasonable steps should be taken to identify and reduce potential risks, including those related to workplace health and safety, bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination.

Some of the most common inappropriate behaviours at Christmas parties include:

  • Unprofessional or unacceptable behaviour
  • Bullying or harassment
  • Sexual harassment which may include unwelcome touching, hugging or kissing, unwanted sexual advances or suggestive comments or jokes
  • Discrimination
  • Breaches of drug and alcohol policies
  • Breaches of confidentiality such as disclosing sensitive information
  • Workplace health and safety incidents
  • Accidents or injuries leading to workers’ compensation claims
  • Issues with social media

How can employers reduce risk at Christmas functions?

It’s unfortunately an all too common occurrence where employees behave inappropriately at a work function, so managers need to be especially vigilant in ensuring they take all reasonable steps to prevent such behaviour taking place. To prevent the work Christmas party from derailing and waking up to issues of employee misconduct, business owners should adopt the following strategies.

Policies and procedures – Business owners should have appropriate, up-to-date workplace policies and procedures or codes of conduct in place covering topics such as bullying and harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination, social media, confidentiality, work health and safety, and drug and alcohol use. Employers should also have policies in place dealing with complaints outlining the reporting process and potential outcomes for any breaches.

Set clear expectations Prior to the event, managers should remind employees of the standards of behaviour expected of them, and that all company policies continue to apply during work functions. Employees should be cautioned about the consequences of inappropriate behaviour, with relevant links to workplace policies circulated to further emphasise the expectations of all workers.

Assess the venue – Employers should undertake a WHS risk assessment of the venue to identify potential safety hazards, and ensure these are monitored throughout the event, or make any potential risk areas out of bounds.

Start and finish times It’s important for managers to establish clearly defined start and finish times for the event, and explicitly state that any activities which continue afterwards are not endorsed by the company. This helps to reduce the risk to business owners for any employee conduct that occurs after the function.

Provide appropriate supervision Employers may choose to appoint a senior employee to stay sober and supervise the function. This can include providing employees with a contact point should any issues arise, monitoring employee behaviour, dealing with issues such as sending people home or closing the bar, and organising appropriate transport arrangements at the end of the night.

Alcohol consumption Where alcohol is involved, employers need to ensure that venues comply with responsible service of alcohol laws and provide sufficient food and non-alcoholic drinks. Employers should keep consumption of alcohol to reasonable levels and ensure no employee feels obliged to drink.

Complaints In the event that a complaint is made, managers must deal with it promptly, professionally and confidentially in accordance with all applicable policies.

In ensuring the health and safety of workers through appropriate planning and management of end of year work functions, business owners also reduce any potential risk to the business. Christmas parties should be a fun environment where all workers feel safe, so it’s important to implement appropriate strategies as a safeguard for both employees and employers.

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