Celebrating the Safe Way

It’s that time of year again and of course everyone loves a good Christmas party but how do we do it in a safe way?

But don’t start celebrating too early after all, the unenviable job of navigating the legal minefields of the silly season needs to fall on someone’s shoulders.

Organising an end of year party and managing behaviour during the event can be a nightmare – but there are certain steps you can take to protect yourself against vicarious liability for any of their transgressions.

7 ways to cut your Christmas party risk

Unless you plan to cancel the end of year party altogether, it is not likely that you will be able to eliminate all the risks associated with it.

Taking the following important steps will help you to manage that risk though:

  1. Have clear, legally compliant workplace policies in place in relation to bullying, sexual harassment and the consumption of alcohol, and ensure your employees are familiar with those policies and have had the opportunity to read them and know what they mean.
  2. This is the right time of year to remind your employees of the standards of behaviour expected of them when attending work-related functions. Make sure it’s crystal clear exactly when the rules of workplace behaviour will apply when you are out of your usual workplace, or outside of normal working hours.
  3. Someone has to have the unenviable job of monitoring employee behaviour during the party. Yep someone has to be sensible and preferably sober for this role.
  4. Serve alcohol responsibly – in particular, avoid the ‘help yourself’ method of service – and provide plenty of food and water.
  1. If someone overindulges in the alcohol provided ensure they are promptly cut off from the bar.
  2. Provide clear ‘start’ and ‘finish’ times for work-related parties. If it is held at your workplace, ensure that people vacate the premises at the end of the function and make sure the party is restricted to safe parts of the workplace. No one should be partying in the workshop, tools and alcohol do not mix.
  3. Provide a safe means of transport home from work-related functions, especially in the case of employees who are intoxicated or otherwise vulnerable. Make sure all of this is clear before the party so people can be organised.

Taking these steps will show you took reasonable precautions to prevent any misconduct and reduce the chance that you will be held vicariously liable for inappropriate behaviour. You may not be able to control everything but you need to take reasonable steps.

Recent court decisions started over incidents arising from work parties have found the employer holds vicarious liability – a responsibility for the actions of their employees in work-related circumstances.

Among these were:

  • a team leader who abused and sexually harassed his colleagues after becoming heavily intoxicated was found to be unfairly dismissed, in part due to his employer’s irresponsible service of alcohol; and
  • a claim for negligence brought against an employer in the Supreme Court by an employee who, while on an office Christmas cruise, was punched in the head by an attendee of another party on the boat (the employer was ultimately cleared of liability).

But it doesn’t even have to be limited to behaviour at the party. You could still be held responsible for your employees’ behaviour after the event.

In a decision earlier this year, an employer was ordered to contribute to an award of over $300,000 in compensation for sexual harassment, which took place while two employees were staying in employer-funded accommodation.

The bottom line is you need to take resaonable steps to ensure that everyone behaves along the same lines as you would expect in a workplace. The word party mixed with alcohol doesn’t mean the workplace rules don’t apply.

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