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Employment law tips for the festive season

It has been a big year in employment law from the rise of the #MeToo campaign putting the focus squarely on sexual harassment within the workplace to the recent highly publicised underpayment claims against retailers and celebrity chefs.

So as most of us head off to Christmas parties over the next week, it is a great time to reflect on what employers need to do to practically manage employee behaviour to avoid a new year legal hangover.

The Christmas Party

You can feel the excitement and cheer in the air as you pass by bustling cafes, restaurants and bars, as workers close out a busy year and rejoice at the pending holidays. It’s a wonderful time of year when workmates put the tools down and finally get that opportunity to catch-up. From a human resources perspective, Christmas parties are extremely important to set the culture of the organisation and help to build relationships that endure the following year. However, they can also be an extremely risky time as you throw alcohol into the mix. Inebriated employees may act out of character and in a manner that goes beyond appropriate workplace behaviour, potentially leading to claims of bullying, harassment and other allegations.

So, what is best practice for employers who want to proactively manage employee behaviour at Christmas functions? We have set out some key themes below:

  • Policies—an employer should have clear and accessible policies in place that unambiguously identify unacceptable conduct. We always suggest that the policy be titled “Appropriate Workplace Behaviour” so that it can positively explain what behaviour is expected rather than having a “Bullying Policy” for example.

  • Timely reminder—employees should be reminded of what is expected of them as well as what constitutes unacceptable conduct before the festivities. This can be done by sending an email to employees pre-event or a gentle pre-function “toolbox” talk.

  • Safety—at law during work-related social events, including those held off-site, the employer remains responsible for employees' safety. This obligation includes reminding employees of their safety obligations to colleagues, reminding employees to drink responsibly and to behave appropriately, and to ensure the venue at which the function will be at is safe. Consideration should be given to providing transport home from functions, such as taxis, or that the function is in close proximity to public transport.

  • Clever catering—employers should ensure that there is adequate food available and that both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages are available.

  • Responsible adult—identify a manager who will remain sober during the event to monitor employee behaviour, intervene if necessary and be the point of contact person for any issues regarding inappropriate behaviour during the function.

  • No excuse—an off-site venue for a Christmas function is an extension of the workplace, so being out of the office does not provide an excuse for inappropriate behaviour.

  • Disciplinary action—any misconduct that occurs during a Christmas function held off-site should be dealt with in the same manner as misconduct in the workplace. Allegations should be made promptly and then fully investigated. Any disciplinary action taken should be in proportion to the level of misconduct.

As you can see with a little pre-planning and consideration of the points above, employers can better-manage the risks that arise when alcohol is served at end-of-year festivities and allow everyone to have an enjoyable time.

We wish you all a very safe and Merry Christmas.

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