Having a social media policy in place will help significantly, says lawyer
In the age of social media, employers would be wise to include a reminder of appropriate guidelines for its use at work events, says one lawyer.
This is especially significant at a time when so many are gathering with colleagues to celebrate the festive season, and where events may well include alcohol, says Sarah McFetridge, senior associate at Bell Gully lawyers.
“The use of social media has increased significantly over the last couple of years and we could see instances in case law of people going along to a work event, documenting that online or posting about the event, and issues cropping up as a result of that,” she says.
“Difficulties can arise for instance if those posts include inappropriate language or comments that’re either derogatory to people or to the company.”
Benefits of social media policy
To complicate the matter, in trying to address problematic posts, it can be difficult to decipher between someone’s private life and their work life, says McFetridge.
“One of the issues at work social events can be if somebody has overconsumed alcohol, their judgment might be impaired, and they post something to social media they regret later, or which is an issue for the employer.”
Having a social media policy in place can help significantly, she says. “That will need to be tailored to the particular employer and the culture there. It’s about having those right guardrails in place to ensure that any use of IT abides by what the company would generally expect to see. A lot of that is common sense, for instance including ensuring there’re no derogatory comments about other employees, no bullying, and no bringing the company into disrepute. Essentially the policy should include that any messaging is positive rather than negative for other employees, clients, or the employer itself.”
While it’s important to be quite clear about what sort of behaviour is or is not tolerated at social events, it’s a good reminder for organisations to be instilling a strong culture at all times, she says.
Fostering a healthy workplace culture
“I do know of instances where employers send messages as part of the invitation to the Christmas party as a reminder, but what’s even more valuable is fostering a strong and healthy workplace culture at all times.
“Guidelines on social media use should also include things like no harassment, no fighting, no bullying.”
And although the festive season raises the same issues for employers as at any time of year, Christmas parties in particular are events where there can be a blurring of lines between people’s social setting and their professional setting, says McFetridge.
“This is especially the case if the party’s happening off-site, for instance, or if it’s outside normal working hours.”
Mitigating H&S risks at social gatherings
To help set any social event up for success, ensuring key principles from a health and safety perspective and an employment law perspective are met will involve detailed planning to mitigate risks, says McFetridge.
“We’re wanting to make sure that we’re keeping people healthy and safe in the workplace. That means have you identified the risks? Have you eliminated them, and if you can’t eliminate them, have you minimised them? Will there be enough food if alcohol is going to be served? Will there be enough non-alcoholic options?
“We also want to try and make sure that people feel included and that we’re not discriminating against anyone. And if there are any issues that happen at an event that we’re dealing with those appropriately.”
Where do employer obligations end?
Also at the event itself there are steps which can help mitigate risk. “Having somebody there as a responsible host, who is appropriately senior and ideally sober, who can ring-fence any issues that arise and make sure people know who they can contact if something goes wrong really helps,” she says.
“The idea is that employees feel safe on the day, they know who they can talk to if they need a bit of a hand, and equally that the nominated person is also confident enough and independent enough to step in where needed.”
If employees opt to extend their celebrations beyond the designated parameters of the official party, ascertaining what constitutes a workplace function and therefore the extent of the employer’s obligations, can become a grey area, says McFetridge.
“It will be very much fact specific. Things that will point towards it being related to the employment or related to work are aspects like if it’s a company branded event or if the organisation’s sponsoring it or paying for it in some way, or if people are wearing uniforms, for instance.”
Clearly define event duration and location
One way to mitigate those risks of blurred lines is by clearly stating the celebration’s specific location, and start and finish times.
“It’s really important to be clear on the distinction between the work-related event and then a separate social event that individuals may choose to participate in.
“By trying to draw a line between what the employer is responsible for and what people are doing in their own social capacity means that if a case ended up in the authority or the court, the employer could more easily indicate what its obligations were.”