A legal guide to avoiding the ghost of Christmas parties yet to come

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It’s not only Ebenezer Scrooge who’s worried about the Ghost of Christmas Past. For HR professionals, Christmas can evoke memories of complaints made, and festive frivolities taken too far.

We all know that “time to unwind work parties” are fraught with risk if they are not planned and managed appropriately. For example, one of Australia’s “big four” banks recently made headlines when it sent an all-staff email confirming that several of its bankers had been sacked for taking illegal drugs at a work-related event. The email also revealed that another employee had been fired after sexually harassing someone from another bank at a separate event (on a related note, see our recent article on the “Weinstein effect“).

So what can your business do to deal with the Ghost of Christmas Present without ruining everybody’s festive spirit?

In the beginning… and at the end!

It’s helpful to have really clear starting and finishing times for any workplace functions, to avoid the impression that the party continues as long as the company bar tab can sustain. You may wish to formally prohibit any after parties, to remove doubt as to whether such events are condoned or approved of. This will also assist in clarifying what the official work function “is” and what it “isn’t”, which leads us to…

Remember that “the workplace” is bigger than just “the workplace”

In recent years, many cases have demonstrated that courts and tribunals take a broad approach in defining a “workplace”. If a function has been planned by or paid for by the employer, then there is every chance that any misconduct at the party (or even outside it) will be considered to have occurred in “the workplace”. This leads to potential consequences for both the perpetrator and employer. With this in mind, the same precautions should be taken for an external Christmas party as there would for a client function on your own premises.

Plan, plan, plan!

It’s always better to think ahead to identify and prevent issues from occurring, rather than relying on your keen sense of hindsight to figure out where it all went wrong. Consider: who will be responsible for the safe and responsible service of alcohol at the event? Will staff be interacting with the general public or separated in a private area? What is the action plan if something goes wrong on the night? Or, to minimise the risk of any late night mishaps, should the function be scheduled during the day?

Train the staff

Everybody should have a basic sense of right or wrong, but this doesn’t necessarily equate to everybody knowing how to behave themselves when it’s time to have “fun”.

Appropriate workplace behaviour training which covers harassment, bullying and discrimination (among other things) can go a long way towards helping everyone understand the “dos and don’ts” of Christmas party etiquette.

Well-drafted policies addressing appropriate conduct and social media usage are also vital for setting expectations and standards for employees, as they wait patiently under the mistletoe. Finally, a simple but effective measure can be to send a friendly (but firm) all-staff email prior to the function, reminding everyone what’s expected of them, and to put them on notice that disciplinary action may be taken if anyone falls short of those standards.

Risks: avoid them

Try to avoid any part of the night where your risk management plan is crossing your fingers and saying “well here’s hoping…”. Make it as easy as possible for everyone to enjoy the celebrations. For example, don’t book remote locations, and ensure everybody has a Cabcharge or some other method of returning home safely. Also, consider asking senior managers to be “party marshals” (not “party poopers”), who have the role of formally monitoring the function for signs of any trouble, and responding to issues before they spiral out of control.

If needed, take action quickly!

Even with all the best planning in the world, things can still go wrong (especially when someone over indulges in the eggnog). Don’t just put names on your naughty list and throw it in the “for 2018” pile on your desk. The fallout from any incident can be minimised if you act swiftly to address and investigate any complaints of misconduct, and take disciplinary action if necessary against any misbehaving elves.

With the above in mind, even Scrooge can throw a Christmas party that everybody remembers for the right reasons, and help us all look forward to meeting the Ghost of Christmas Future!

This article is part of a regular employment law column series for HRM Online by Workplace Relations & Safety partner Aaron Goonrey. It was first published in HRM Online on 12 December 2017. The HRM Online version of this article is available here.

All information on this site is of a general nature only and is not intended to be relied upon as, nor to be a substitute for, specific legal professional advice. No responsibility for the loss occasioned to any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any material published can be accepted.