The end of year Christmas celebrations are upon us, and workplaces around Australia are abuzz with gossip and stories from the annual parties. In this two-part series HC investigates the legal guidelines for ensuring the office party ends with a laugh not a lawsuit.
Nicholas Duggal, partner at TressCox Lawyers, a specialist law firm focused on corporate and commercial law, said without the right legal advice and protection, it’s often the employer who is liable for any misconduct leading to injury or harassment at work parties.
According to Duggal, “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.”
Duggal said that while workers’ compensation and Occupational Health and Safety laws (OHS) cover employees at official Christmas functions, employers may not realise that in some instances the onus of responsibility can extend to situations where employees make their way home after a function, or even remain at a venue beyond the organised function time.
“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,” Duggal said.
To avoid liability this festive season it’s important for employers to set boundaries and understand their rights and the rights of their employees.
Duggal identified the common pitfalls of employers when organising work functions, and identified guidelines for avoiding legal folly:
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.
Do as I say... and as I do:
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 practicing 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.
Predetermine ‘pumpkin’ time:
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.
In part II of our special Christmas party legal series, employment lawyer Lisa Berton explains how the actions of a company the morning after the party can carry more legal implications than the event itself. She outlines some likely scenarios and the legal/HR issues that arise. Click here to read.