I was just having fun – rights and responsibilities at the office Christmas party

There are many stories in the media about inappropriate behaviour at work functions – the more public the ‘offender’, the more likely the incident will attract ongoing attention.

Work Christmas parties provide a great opportunity to mix with fellow colleagues and bosses, reflect on the year’s activities and get to know each other on a more personal level.

With each social function however, employers and employees have certain rights and responsibilities. Understanding these and working together should ensure everybody’s welfare is protected and avoid some of the pitfalls that can arise from poorly managed events. Issues can range from the embarrassment of having ‘one too many’ to serious claims of sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination.

So, while preparing to let your hair down for the end of year celebrations, it’s a good idea to brush up on some essential work function responsibilities so that your next event is not too eventful.

Laying down the law

Despite a work function being held off work premises and out of normal working hours, workplace laws still apply and an employer’s duty of care for its employees remains as if they were at work.

Accordingly, without resorting to becoming the ‘fun police’, it is appropriate for employers to remind their employees about acceptable behaviour, codes of conduct, workplace and social media policies, responsible alcohol consumption and the prohibition of illicit drugs. This reminder should be in writing, issued before the event, and may accompany the invitation.

Employer’s liability

Employers may be liable to compensate an employee if, through a negligent act or omission, they fail in their duty of care to prevent injury and the person suffers harm. This liability extends to work functions and events.

Employers are also vicariously responsible for the behaviour of their employees both in the workplace and at work functions. Vicarious liability is a type of secondary liability whereby a superior (employer) is responsible for the actions of a subordinate (employee). This arises from the common law principle that the employer has a right, ability or duty to control the employee.

An employer can therefore be liable for harm suffered by a worker (such as discrimination, harassment including sexual harassment, and bullying) due to the inappropriate conduct of an employee. The effects of too much alcohol or simply forgetting that the work function is deemed a workplace can often fuel behaviour leading to these issues.

Employee behaviour and misconduct

Employees who behave inappropriately at a work function not only reflect poorly on themselves and their employer but may risk losing their job. An employee can be formally disciplined and, if the behaviour is severe enough, may be dismissed.

Although there are laws to protect employees from unfair and harsh dismissal, several cases have established that misconduct, in some circumstances, is sufficient grounds for termination. Misconduct includes drunkenness, dishonesty, breach of confidence and insulting / objectionable language – all actions that may be exacerbated by a few too many drinks or in a social context.

Social media

Employees should ensure they comply with their work social media policy – just because it’s a party does not mean that the posting of inappropriate images and / or comments will not breach policy. Whether or not a social media policy is in place, the best advice is, if in doubt, don’t.

Top tips for a smooth event

The following checklists for employers and employees should help keep everybody safe and ensure that your next event is enjoyable and runs smoothly for all.

Employers

  • Consider your employees’ religious and cultural beliefs, family and caring responsibilities, and travel requirements when planning, to foster an inclusive non-discriminatory event.
  • Remind employees before the function that workplace policies and codes of conduct will apply, a breach of which may result in disciplinary action.
    Note that a mere reminder about workplace policies is insufficient if employees do not have access to, and have not had training in, such policies.
  • Set specific starting and finishing times, reminding employees that a decision to ‘party-on’ after the event will not be condoned by the employer.
  • Ensure sufficient food, non-alcoholic beverages and water are available.
  • Liaise with function centre management to ensure that responsible service of alcohol rules will be upheld and that a key employer will be notified of any employee or guest in danger of excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Provide employees with access to safe transportation after the party and ensure that they start their journey home from the event safely.

Employees

  • Be respectful of others, their opinions and beliefs and conduct yourself appropriately. Try to avoid topics that are likely to become heated and, if discussions get too controversial, walk away and get on with enjoying the party.
  • Make sure you are familiar with company policies and codes of conduct.
  • Drink sensibly and eat well to slow alcohol absorption.
  • Look out for your colleagues and guests and ask for assistance if you believe somebody’s welfare might be compromised.
  • Don’t get drawn into office gossip or behaviour that may be perceived as offensive, lude or explicit.
  • Be mindful about social media – apart from checking on the children and calling a taxi to get home safely, why not just leave the mobile aside and get on with enjoying the night.

Conclusion

Well-planned end of year work celebrations can be very rewarding and build morale within the workplace. By following some simple steps employers and employees can ensure the party is inclusive and fun for everybody, while keeping professional and personal reputations intact and avoiding legal complications.

Talk to a specialist

For a confidential, free case assessment, please call us on 02 6621 2481 at Lismore, Ballina on 02 6686 2522 or Byron Bay on 02 6680 8525, email advice@sll.com.au or contact us online.