HR Tips & Answers

Work Christmas Parties – Are you prepared?

With the 2023 Christmas silly season rapidly approaching, now is the time to make plans so that everyone enjoys the festivities and your business avoids a ‘legal hangover’ in the new year.

Christmas functions are a great way to end off the working year and rewarding your employees for a job well done throughout the year, BUT…

The recent introduction of employer’s Positive Duty obligations and the changes to the Sexual Discrimination Act make it a challenge for the Christmas party to be a good time for everyone attending.

When planning your end of year function you must clearly understand that there are some potential risk areas where a harassment or  discrimination complaint can arise.  Remember that anything can happen at a Christmas party; especially when alcohol is involved!

For example; everyone likes a joke right?  Well that’s not necessarily true and what one person or one group of people may think of as funny may be offensive to another (ie racial, gender based or other).  You need to be aware that what you may think of as a wacky employee award or comment may not be taken that way by the employee receiving it or even by other attendees.

By now all employers should be ensuring that their policies, procedures and training around workplace behaviour, bullying & harassment are in place (Remember all of the Positive Duty & Sexual Harassment changes come into force 13 December 2023).

When you organise and pay for a workplace function then any misconduct occurs at the party (or even outside it) will be considered to have occurred in “the workplace”.

A Christmas function is a work function and you as the employer are liable for all the actions of your employees and their families including the effects of their actions on others not only at the function but until they get back home as well.

By the time your Christmas party rolls around your employees should be fully aware of what is acceptable behaviour, and more importantly what is not!  However you can’t just rely on old “everyone knows” defence – you need to set out some very clear boundaries and expectations for your function.

It all sounds a bit difficult and complicated doesn’t it! But don’t worry prevention is always the best strategy.

So what can you do?

  • Make sure that your function has clear start and finish times and this is communicated.
    • This will ensure that your employees know when the workplace function finishes and that they must leave the function so that it doesn’t just disintegrate into an informal ‘after party’
    • Make sure that you do not endorse or sanction pre-function drinking or ‘after parties’.
  • Plan ahead:
    • Consider providing refresher training in the months leading up to your function. Focus on acceptable behaviours, sexual harassment and discrimination.
      • Use your toolbox meetings, emails and newsletters so that your employees know what won’t be tolerated at the function as well as in the workplace and what disciplinary action can be taken if an employee breaches these expectations
    • Would it be better to hold the function during the day and make it a family event?
    • Consider your workplace demographic; especially any cultural considerations.
    • Avoid risks:
      • Consider who is responsible for responsible the safe service of alcohol (RSA).
      • Will employees be in a private area or in a public place?
        • Is the venue suitable for a safe, appropriate and comfortable environment for all attendees? could it be viewed as a hostile environment?
      • What is the plan if something goes wrong? Will you have designated managers trained and in place to act as marshals to manage any signs of trouble quickly.
      • What is the limit for alcoholic refreshments and how will it be managed?
        • For example, will you issue employees with a certain number of drink vouchers rather than just running a tab?
      • Ensure that you provide adequate food, non-alcoholic & soft drinks and water to cater for all employees. Remember a number of factors can influence how a person reacts to alcohol intake ; and remember it’s not the same for everyone!.
      • Make sure that there are arrangements in place so that employees get home safely:
        • You should make sure that your employees leave the function venue safely
        • Will your business hire a bus or other safe transport for employee pick up before & drop off after the function?
        • Will you supply attendees with cab vouchers, or is there adequate public transport close to the venue?
      • Advise all employees of appropriate codes of behaviour, in writing, prior to the function. Refer to your organisational bullying and harassment and social media policies.
      • If things do go wrong, act swiftly to address and investigate any complaints of misconduct and take disciplinary action if necessary.

Remembering that the new Positive Duty rules cover any interactions or other connection to the workplace, and you as the employer have the right to set clear rules and expectations for anyone attending your workplace function.

Work-Social misbehaviour must be investigated just like any other misconduct and the employer has the right to investigate and impose disciplinary actions if required for any incidents that occur at the function.

Everyone wants to enjoy a good time unwinding at the end of a long working year and enjoy good relationships with their fellow employees long after the Christmas function is over but avoiding the ‘legal hangover’ for your business is important too.

As always, we’re here to help you.  If you require help developing the appropriate Policies or wish to discuss your situation, give us a call on 02 6009 1000.

Published: Monday, November 20th, 2023
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