The festive season brings risks for employers

By Clayton Payne, Special Counsel, Thynne + Macartney

The mix of informal interaction and alcohol at Christmas functions can lead to a raft of possible legal claims and complications.

That time of the year is fast approaching. With the end of the year comes Christmas functions laced with a fair dose of fun and frivolity.

While there is no doubt that staff Christmas functions can help in building morale and team spirit, they can also become a headache for employers – long after any hangovers have worn-off!

The workplace in this day and age does not necessarily comprise of the four walls of the building where staff spend their time during business hours. This is in part why the activities of staff at employer endorsed Christmas functions should be of concern to employers.

The mix of informal interaction and alcohol at Christmas functions can lead to a raft of possible legal claims and complications. These can range from sexual harassment complaints and workers’ compensation claims, to unlawful discrimination and bullying complaints, just to name several.

In order to mitigate the risk of such issues arising, employers might consider implementing the following measures:

  • having sound policies and procedures in place dealing with matters such as sexual harassment, unlawful discrimination and workplace bullying;
  • educating staff on these policies and procedures, particularly before any festivities take place, and maintaining records to show that each relevant staff member attending a function has been given that education;
  • inspecting the venue where a function is to be held to ascertain if there are any risks to health and safety posed by it, and whether measures can be implemented to negate or mitigate those risks;
  • ensuring that alcohol is served in moderation at any function;
  • ensuring that there is plenty of food and non-alcoholic drinks available at any function;
  • setting reasonable dress standards for a function (i.e. to ensure that staff are not putting themselves at a risk of injuring themselves, or are not provoking unwelcome attention leading to sexual harassment complaints);
  • ensuring that some senior managers, who are preferably not drinking any alcohol, act as “trouble shooters” to head off any potential issues (such as intoxication or violent behaviour);
  • banning the taking of photographs for use on social media at any function (i.e. an unflattering photograph posted on Facebook, could form an instance of repeated “unreasonable” behaviour leading to a possible bullying complaint);
  • ensuring that staff are given transport home following a function, or at the very least, are made aware of safe means to return home following it (e.g. by way of taxi stand or train station locations, etc.);  and
  • setting and advising staff of definite start and finish times for a function.

Christmas functions can still be enjoyable events which serve as a reward to staff for their contribution to a workplace. While some might consider that the measures discussed above could hamper the enjoyment of a function, the alternative may be a substantially worse situation. Ensuring that an intoxicated person is escorted home during a function, would be better than dealing with the aftermath of a sexual harassment complaint, not only for the employer, but for the staff involved.

This article first appeared at Thynne + Macartney.