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Christmas parties can cause more than just a few headaches. For employers, the risks associated with Christmas celebration events are very real as it is easy for staff to forget, in that sort of social setting, that the usual rules around appropriate workplace behaviour still apply.

Earlier this year, the Fair Work Commission heard an unfair dismissal case [1] involving an intoxicated male employee who sexually harassed other employees at a work-related function. The harassment included persistently asking an employee for her phone number, telling another she was a "Stuck up b****" and saying to another "Who the f*** are you? What do you even do here?". The intoxicated employee also kissed another employee in an unsolicited and unprovoked manner.

The Commission found that the worker's conduct was a result of his intoxication and that he was never refused a drink or prevented from accessing alcohol at the work Christmas party, despite his visible intoxication. The free-flowing access to alcohol at a function under the employer's control was a factor in the Commission finding that the employer's decision to terminate the worker's employment was harsh, unjust and unreasonable. The Commission said, "This was ultimately a result of the fact that [the employer] did not place anyone with managerial authority in charge of the conduct of the function, but essentially let it run itself". The Commission also said that it was "contradictory and self-defeating for an employer to require compliance with its normal standards of behaviour whilst simultaneously allowing unlimited service of free alcohol."

Another risk that's emerged in recent years is the infamous "selfie". The vast majority of these photos are innocuous enough, but if a photo would be considered inappropriate in the workplace then it is another story. The situation can be made even worse when inappropriate photos are shared on various social media platforms.

So what can employers do to prepare for a fun work-related function that is trouble free and to help avoid a litigious new year? Here are our top 10 tips for a well-managed work-related function.

  1. Remind workers about appropriate workplace behaviour before the event and tell them that these standards apply, even if the party occurs outside of working hours and away from the office.
  2. Review workplace policies on sexual harassment and alcohol and drug use, and ensure that employees are trained in their content.
  3. Warn employees about the consequences of inappropriate behaviour.
  4. Set clear start and finish times for your function and don't serve alcohol beyond this time.
  5. Serve plenty of food and non-alcoholic drinks.
  6. Encourage employees to know their own limits when it comes to alcohol consumption and ensure management lead by example.
  7. Ensure that the party venue is close to safe transportation home and tell workers that they shouldn't drive if they plan to drink.
  8. Check the venue for possible hazards and make potential risk areas out-of-bounds.
  9. Appoint a senior employee to stay sober to oversee the function, which may require them to address escalating behaviour, such as sending some people home or even closing the bar.
  10. Deal with all complaints promptly and in line with your procedures.

By using these top tips with a little good sense, your workplace should be able to make it through the silly season with a minimum of risk and a maximum of enjoyment!

[1] Keenan v Leighton Boral Amey Joint Venture [2015] FWC 3156 (26 June 2015).

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