Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Office Christmas Party: “Ho Ho Ho” or “Oh Oh No”

Christmas is always a busy time for employment lawyers, with the ‘silly season’ often living up to its name.

So how can your company still recognise and reward staff for their efforts during the year, without being the Christmas grinch?

Misconduct, bullying, harassment, or safety issues can arise. But, there are measures a company can put in place before, during and after an end of year function to limit company liability and manage the associated legal risks.

An often-cited 2015 case, Keenan v Leighton Boral Amey Joint Venture, provides a reminder that an employee’s aggressive, harassing and bullying behaviour during and after a work Christmas party may not always justify the employee’s dismissal.

What The Company Did Right

  • Staff were educated about appropriate workplace behaviour, through the supply of policies, procedures and training on the company’s expected ‘Values and Behaviours’;
  • The Christmas party was held at a public venue, with the Hotel agreeing to abide by Responsible Service of Alcohol guidelines;
  • Before the party started, the Company’s supervisors reminded employees about appropriate standards of behaviour at the party; and
  • The starting and finishing times for the party were made clear.

What The Company Did Wrong

  • No company manager or supervisor was made responsible for the running of the party while the function was taking place;
  • The company didn’t communicate to employees that the expected standard of behaviour continued after the party had finished;
  • After a certain time, employees were able to freely help themselves to alcohol; and
  • The Company didn’t satisfactorily discharge its duty to ensure that the Hotel was serving alcohol responsibly.

The combination of inadequate supervision and self-service alcohol led to the employee’s intoxication and aggressive and bullying behaviour towards other staff members. As this conduct largely occurred after the Christmas party had officially finished, the Fair Work Commission found that the company wasn’t vicariously liable. However, it found the company was responsible for the employee’s intoxicated state and therefore his dismissal was unfair.

What You Need To Do

  • Plan the event carefully;
    • Hold the event off-site. This can help discharge an employer’s responsibility relating to responsible service of alcohol and ensure there isn’t unlimited “self-service.”
    • Nominate a manager to be in charge during the event to ensure that alcohol is being served responsibly, no employees are intoxicated, and people are behaving appropriately.
    • Have clear start and finishing times – and stick to them.
    • Think about post-event transportation and how employees will get home safely.
  • Set expectations by reminding staff of Company’s policies on what is acceptable behaviour, and this expectation continues after the function has officially ended.
  • Remind staff they are expected to turn up to work punctually the next day.
  • Remind staff to get the balance right – it is a “fun” function but it is still a work function.

Policies and procedures are meaningless if you don’t actually give them effect. Comprehensive pre-planning helps to ensure that the end of year function is fun and safe for everyone.


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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