Monday, 5 December 2016

The Bash before Christmas: Christmas party perils and how to avoid them

The end of year period is a time for celebration, with internal Christmas parties and client functions to see out the year. However, to be able to really relax into the festivities, employers need to prepare for the potential risks that can arise at end of year events, and address these risks in advance.

An unfair dismissal case heard at this start of this year following a 2014 Christmas party emphasises that employee’s must be accountable for their conduct at work-related functions, and also highlights the importance of employers having guidelines in place for appropriate workplace behaviour at these functions.

Case Study: McDaid v Future Engineering and Communication Pty Ltd [2016] FWC 343

At Future Engineering and Communication’s Christmas party in December 2014, fuelled by an open bar and unlimited alcohol, an inebriated employee, Mr McDaid, shoved a work colleague into a swimming pool. When a Future Engineering manager asked Mr McDaid to leave, a fight ensued. Mr McDaid’s employment was terminated the following day and he subsequently brought a claim for unfair dismissal.

The Commissioner, in dismissing McDaid’s application, noted that “[t]he fact that someone has been drinking when they behave badly may, in part, explain their actions but it should not be accepted as an excuse for that misbehaviour”.

Further, the Commissioner noted that an employer that provides alcohol to employees without reasonable guidelines for its consumption may be liable if the alcohol is the cause of harm to a worker – for example, if the colleague in this case had simply drunkenly fallen into the pool on his own. However, those acting to the detriment of others under the influence are held accountable for their own actions.

Lessons for Employers

Employers are reminded that the ‘workplace’ can extend to locations outside the traditional work environment and the Courts have found employers vicariously liable for their employees’ actions at work-related functions.

Employers are therefore encouraged to make an extra effort to communicate with staff about the expected standards of behaviour at end of year functions, as well as ensuring that managers are charged with overseeing such functions to ensure these standards are adhered to.

HR Legal recommends the following approach:

  • Have regard to appropriate safety measures in organising functions.
  • Remind employees what behaviours are expected and to reacquaint themselves with the relevant policies.
  • Offer non-alcoholic and lighter alcohol beverage options.
  • Ensure external event staff are briefed about the expectation of adhering to Responsible Service of Alcohol requirements.
  • Designate a manager/s to supervise the function to ensure appropriate workplace behaviours.
  • Have a start and end time for the function and adhere to this.
  • Ensure the function is arranged with accessible public transport options.
  • Have fun!

HR Legal can provide advice on policies and procedures to assist with the smooth running of this festive season in your workplace, as well as how to address any incidents of inappropriate behaviour that may occur at end of year functions.

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This article was produced by HR Legal. It is intended to provide general information only in summary format on legal issues. It does not constitute legal advice, and should not be relied on as such.

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