By Lucienne Gleeson, Associate, PCC Lawyers
We’ve all seen it, the workplace Christmas party that gets out of hand. Someone has too much to drink and shows it. An unwelcome move is put on a colleague. People snap pictures, or worse, take videos that will end up on social media. Lewd jokes are made.
For bosses, even just the thought of what can go wrong is enough to put a nasty dampener on the joy and festive feeling they might have envisaged.
So, apart from canning the event altogether and earning the nickname “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”, what safeguards can you adopt to limit the risks?
Be Proactive not Reactive
Thinking ahead about proactive steps to limit risks at a workplace event is essential. Key issues to consider include:
Who will monitor the events?
What time will the event run from, and, more importantly, to?
How will you ensure the responsible service of alcohol?
What workplace policies should employees be reminded about?
What health and safety risks does the event pose?
Better by far to resolve these issues in advance than to suffer, as one employer did, a court finding that the sacking of an employee who misbehaved badly at the staff Christmas party was unfair because the employer supplied unlimited alcohol at the event.
In Keenan v Leighton Boral Amey Joint venture  FWC 3156 an employee was accused of having committed various acts of poor behaviour at the workplace Christmas function. This included allegations of sexual harassment, swearing at colleagues, criticising the company and bullying attendees. The employee’s job was terminated for these acts, which occurred after he had consumed lots of free alcohol. Vice President Hatcher noted in this case that it was: ‘contradictory and self-defeating for an employer to require compliance with usual standards of behaviour at a function but at the same time allow unlimited service of free alcohol at the function.’ The Vice President observed that no one was in charge at the function to observe and address employee behaviour. In fact, despite the employee’s noticeably poor behaviour and clear intoxication he was not stopped from further consuming alcohol or forced to leave. The decision that the employee was unfairly dismissed, despite his deplorable behaviour, highlights the folly of not being properly prepared for a workplace party.
The best way to remind employees how to behave is to issue a clear statement about this preferably at the start of the event or in an earlier email. Employees should be reminded that they are still at work during the event and that the normal workplace policies and expected standards of behaviour apply. Specific policies, such as the code of conduct and the bullying and harassment policy should be highlighted.
While raising workplace policies is a good start it is important that this be not just a token gesture. Given the additional risks raised by alcohol consumption in the workplace, monitoring of behaviour is crucial. Managers assigned to the event should tell any employees who have drunk too much to stop drinking (and ensure this is enforced) and should direct employees to leave the event if inappropriate behaviour is exhibited.
Banning alcohol at your event might seem a little drastic but other approaches can temper consumption.
A coupon system might be put in place to limit the number of drinks employees are able to consume. In addition, employees should be informed that they may not have more than a prescribed number of drinks. Alcohol should be served to employees rather than laid out for employees to take as they please. Further, the strength of alcohol to be provided should be carefully considered. For example, should spirits be provided?
At the designated finish time the serving of alcohol should cease and the event close down. If employees then continue celebrating elsewhere any mishaps that occur will less likely be connected to their employment, and the employer will therefore be less likely to be liable.
Employees should be clearly advised well before the event that they should plan suitable transport if they are going to consume alcohol. As employer, you might provide suitable transport options or suggestions. Managers in charge of monitoring behaviour at the event must keep a close eye on intoxicated employees to ensure they do not drive. While workers compensation claims for journeys between work and home are largely a thing of the past, there is still potential for such liability where an employer provides alcohol and lets an employee drive home intoxicated.
If inappropriate behaviour does arise at the event, it should be addressed quickly but not rashly. The offending employee should be sent home immediately and the offending behaviour should be addressed later in a procedurally fair manner, taking into account the employee’s performance history, the context and the various options available to for discipline.
So, with some thoughtful planning and a realistic assessment of potential risks your Christmas event can spread joy, peace and goodwill.
This article originally appeared on the PCC Lawyers website and has been reproduced with permission.