Christmas party warning for employers: 7 tips to avoid a lawsuit

Virtual festivities pose new risks for employers

Christmas party warning for employers: 7 tips to avoid a lawsuit

Key takeaways

  • Virtual Christmas parties add new layers of risk around online bullying, sexual harassment, privacy and fallouts
  • After so much time spent behind a screen, it’s easy for employees to forget it is still a workplace environment
  • HR must be proactive, assessing those risks and putting strategy in place to minimise them for the benefit of both employer and employees

It’s almost the end of the year and after a uniquely challenging 12 months, employees are ready to let their hair down.

The annual Christmas party has always been known as an opportunity for revelry.

But with the rise in virtual events via platforms like Zoom and Skype, comes another added layer of risk – and if HR professionals don’t plan carefully, the Christmas party could lead to more than just a few sore heads.

HRD spoke to HR and workplace bullying expert, Maureen Kyne, who warned moving the festivities online could be a recipe for disaster if the proper procedures aren’t in place.

“People have been confined and living under really harsh restrictions. Behaviours or issues have been bottled up over a period of time but all of a sudden we’re able to express our emotions.

“With addition of alcohol being consumed, is that the time for people to let fly and become abusive in their behaviour towards a workmate?.

“Being behind a screen gives people an extra level of bravado.

“Employees might go out there with all the right intentions but things that have festered could come to the forefront.”

Read more: Virtual ‘happy hour’?: How to drive engagement in COVID-19

As well as an opportunity for tensions to implode between colleagues, Kyne said HR leaders also need to think about potential privacy issues in the instance of an employee being recorded without their knowledge.

Where once embarrassing behaviour could’ve been laughed off as a one-off mishap, online parties present the potential for antics that if shared, could go viral and haunt an employee forever.

Kyne said it’s now more important than ever for HR to consider the various risks involved with a virtual party and to put strategies in place to minimise them.

“We haven’t seen anything like this before where most Christmas parties are held online so companies need to make sure they are equipped for any fallout,” she said.

“Companies may save on cab vouchers and Uber fares this year, but employees behaving badly could cost you in legal action.”

Read more: Class actions on the rise: What employers need to know

Seven tips for a safe and successful virtual party

  1. Workplace rules

Employers should realise that when they are hosting their office Christmas party online it is still within the workplace environment and workplace HR rules still apply such as responsible consumption of alcohol, appropriate language, behaviour and dress attire. Gifts exchanged must also be work appropriate.

  1. Risk assessment

Take into consideration the family home, number of attendees, alcohol and ensure non-employees are not in attendance.

  1. Workplace contract

Companies should issue a written reminder to their employees that their behaviour over a video calling interface falls within their contract and the workplace policies on sexual harassment, anti-discrimination and workplace health and safety rules still apply.  Too much Christmas cheer is grounds for disciplinary action.

  1. Alcohol and drug policy

Remind employees of the company’s drug and alcohol policy.

  1. Electronic recordings

Employees need to remember that this year’s Christmas party like many of their workplace meetings during COVID is an electronic video call so the Santa hats, reindeer ears, swapping gifts, eating and drinking and playing games all happen in the comfort of their own home but abusive, drunken and inappropriate behaviour will also be captured.

  1. Privacy settings

If they haven’t already, companies need to ensure their online party is secure, it has a meeting ID and is not hosted on a public channel shared over the internet via URLs making them susceptible to zoom bombing. Zoom bombing is a form of trolling and leaves companies open to uninvited Christmas guests sharing inappropriate imagery.

  1. Strict start and end time

Employers need to clearly communicate the start and end time of Christmas party and explain that once the video call is ended, it’s also the end of the party and ‘time to go home’. This is particularly important in households where other participants and even children could become involved.

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