Are employers at risk over bad behaviour at work Christmas parties?

Welcome to Sisters In Law, news.com.au’s weekly column solving all of your legal problems. This week, our resident lawyers and real-life sisters, Alison and Jillian Barrett from Maurice Blackburn, help a concerned employer with his office Christmas party.

QUESTION: I’ve organised the end of year party for my quite disgruntled team after a tough year of cuts and redundancies. They had very high expectations of what it would include – in previous years we’ve had fancy dinners with free-flowing champagne and even a boat on Sydney Harbour. The issue is, their current frames of mind make me worry that a lot of alcohol could lead to problems. I envisage arguments and bad behaviour.

If we serve them a lot of alcohol at work events and there is trouble – bearing in mind it won’t be on work property or during work time – are we responsible as a company for anything that happens? I feel like if we don’t give them a good Christmas party they could riot but, equally, I don’t want the company to be liable for their outrageous behaviour. – Anon, Sydney

ANSWER: The end of year party can be the most eagerly anticipated and talked about event in a workplace.

As an employer, you have a duty of care to your employees to ensure their safety. This also applies to after-hours events held off site.

The way you have framed your question leads us to believe you already have concerns that things might get out of control, which means you have even more of an obligation to take all the steps to minimise any harm to employees.

You can do this by:

• Reminding staff (in advance of the party) about what is considered acceptable behaviour and conduct

• Circulating any relevant organisational policies and procedures, such as those around sexual harassment, bullying and the use of social media

• Ensuring alcohol is served responsibly and there is food, as well as non-alcoholic drinks available

• Setting clear start and finish times for the party

• Making sure that employees have a way to get home safely

Given the party happens outside of work hours, we assume it is held at night.

In that case, if there are no safe and easy public transport options available for your employees at the end of the night, then you should consider providing taxi vouchers, private transport or a travel reimbursement for them to get home safely.

You can place restrictions on this transport home, for example, by specifying that it is only to be used for transport directly home from the venue.

If your employees “kick on” after the party when it is not encouraged by you, as their employer, they will generally do so at their own risk (as long as you have provided food, served alcohol responsibly and set a finish time for the work event).

Under the law, a work party is considered to be part of the workplace and all staff can be expected to behave as they would at work – even if it is held away from the usual place of work or outside normal hours of work.

Unfortunately, workplace parties and events are notorious for facilitating unwanted sexual attention, even though sexual harassment laws apply to behaviour at a work party, just as they would in the workplace.

If there is inappropriate behaviour at the party, you can still discipline or potentially dismiss a worker if their behaviour calls for that.

If someone is injured at the staff party or injured on their way to or from the function, they may also be eligible to apply for workers’ compensation.

By doing some planning, and educating your employees about their responsibilities, you can all have a good night and reduce the risk of unintended consequences.

This legal information is general in nature and should not be regarded as specific legal advice or relied upon. Persons requiring particular legal advice should consult a solicitor. If you have a legal question you would like Alison and Jillian to answer, please email stories@news.com.au. Get more from Alison and Jillian on their Facebook page.

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