How much should managers drink at Christmas functions?

by Nicola Middlemiss11 Nov 2015
It happens every year: HR teams think they’ve covered every corner, only to return to work in January having to deal with an employee who misbehaved at the Christmas party.

HC spoke to Karl Blake, partner at Minter Ellison, about how employers should be preparing to lower the risks of liability arising from their Christmas functions.

Blake suggested that HR should consider the issues of hosting a workplace function in terms of three stages: before the event, at the event, and after the event.

“If you think about events in those three stages, it gives you a sensible way to do it,” he told HC.

Before the event

According to Blake, there is essentially one of two things that needs to happen before the event is held:
  • Appropriate employer rules or policies must be put in place, with training that’s occurred around them. The training might happen as a regular part of business operations, or in the lead up to the event.

    “This is an important plank to limiting liability or issues,” Blake told HC.
  • If the training has occurred as a part of the business cycle, it’s important to remind people of it before the event takes place.

    “This can be done as a quick refresher training session, or via email, but there needs to be some kind of reminder,” Blake said.
At the event

“One of the most important things to be clear about are the start and end times for the function, and in particular to make some statement that after-parties aren’t endorsed,” said Blake.

“You need to define the times that the employer is responsible.”

He added that ensuring the responsible service of alcohol “conjures up a number of elements” for employers to consider; these include making sure the venue adheres to responsible service; serving food early and quickly; and considering making other activities available so that people aren’t simply hanging around the bar and drinking.

“Give some consideration as to whether an appropriate contact person will be there – how supervised do you need the party to be?” said Blake.

“There’s also the curly question of how much managers should be drinking – consider who the go-to person will be if an incident arises.”

But the potential for bad behaviour isn’t limited to alcohol-related problems, he reminded HC.

“We also see problems related to ‘Secret Santa’ exchanges,” Blake said. “Employers need to set down rules in relation to appropriate gifts.”
After the event

“Give some consideration to how employees are going to get home,” Blake advised. “This is often overlooked.

“Often these events occur late at night – are people able to get home by public transport safely? If not, offer employees alternative methods such as taxi vouchers.

“There’s a problem here in Melbourne in December with getting taxi cabs after Christmas parties,” he added.

“Sometimes they are difficult to get on the spot, so give some consideration to safe methods of transportation in the organisation of the event – you need to ensure that you are adhering to workplace health and safety obligations.

HR must also consider the longer-term aftermath of a Christmas celebration.

“From experience, we’ve found that it’s very common to turn up to work on the 4th of January and have claims waiting for us,” Blake said.

“It is also very common for employees to turn up and be subject to discipline and dismissed – we are called to get a lot of advice on this.

“The idea that a Christmas party makes employees immune to this or permits a lower standard of behaviour is a thing of the past, and people do lose their jobs.”

If HR did find themselves having to deal with an issue arising from the festivities, Blake advised that it should be handled promptly.

“However, it doesn’t do anyone any good to deal with these issues on the night,” he suggested.

“The appropriate response is to send someone home – put them in a taxi – and then to deal with it first thing upon returning to work.”


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