Office christmas party and legal issues

Employers and the office Christmas Party

I recall going to my very first company Christmas party in my younger days and watching in fascination as the normally quiet office receptionist (having had a few too many cocktails) complained loudly about the lack of a bonus that year.

In hindsight, that was the easiest part of the night to deal with as her later heckling of the ‘boss’ (and then the ‘big boss’) during their ‘thanks-for-the-year-that-was’ speech made everyone so uncomfortable that the party basically ended by silent agreement soon after.

You don’t have to be in HR to know how that turned out the next working day back… although it didn’t have to be like that.

In fact, and as many businesses find out with the ‘help’ of the Fair Work Commission, it was my old employer who really had most of the blame for the way it was handled (actually all of it in my opinion and from experience and hindsight).

So to help you avoid some of the possible employer hangover blues, here are 4 things to think about when planning your Christmas party this year:

1. Have an invite

For employers, putting on a party is a great way to show the team (and guests) how much they are valued for their contributions and to reinforce the company values as a whole.

But like any party, guests need to be told some basics like where, when and:

  • how to behave (see below ‘Set some rules’)
  • clearly explain the hours of the ‘official company’ party. Now it won’t stop potential issues per se but it will help draw a line of defence for when the party no longer was the employer’s responsibility should it be needed.
  • remind guests to drink responsibly and take care of their travel to and from the event. If needed, employers should consider transporting employees if the event is out of the way more than normal.

An invite will also allow for an employer to remind employees and guests about ‘the rules’ in writing.

2. Set some ‘rules’

You don’t want to sound like the Grinch, but taking the time to briefly mention how the company expects guests to behave (e.g. follow established codes of conduct, attitudes towards safety and well-being, including harassment and bullying and social media) is important.

  • It can just be reminding everyone to act in accordance with the established company expectations of behaviour.

This becomes easier to do when such expectations are written down and communicated of course. Hence this time of year reinforces the need for any business to have a set of policies or ‘how-we-work’ guidelines and to ensure they are known and communicated to the workforce.

*yawn* you say?

Well, it is these company documents that an employer will most likely rely on when entering into termination and discipline matters with employees.

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve asked a company if they have a policy to defend against their employee’s behaviour I’d be, well, a much wealthier man (but you get the point).

3. If you serve alcohol

We love a safe drink with friends as much as the next person but as an official company function, an employer’s responsibilities are somewhat greater than normal.

  • For example, if there is an open bar, make sure responsible service of alcohol protocols are present and followed. This can include providing adequate amounts of food for guests.
  • Designate someone from management to monitor and facilitate the event. An employee may still be the responsibility of the employer even if that employee is inebriated (perhaps more so given the drinks are on the business)!

Remember my story about the not-so-quiet-but-well-soaked office receptionist? Under Fair Work, her termination might have been seen quite differently based on all the factors and not just the heckling.

4. And worst case…

Action any complaints that may arise promptly and do so in accordance with your processes. For small businesses, this means using the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code.

  • Failing to do so can support claims of unfair treatment by an employee… even if you believe it was not during the employer sponsored events of the night or the conduct of the employee warranted termination.

Don’t. Get. Caught. Out.

So with some simple planning, notifications and responsible service attitudes towards your people, you can help increase the chances of a successful Christmas party and limit the employer hangovers that others will suffer.

Be safe, be merry and don’t be one of the unfair dismissal cases the lawyers will use to talk about during the next ‘silly season’!

Thanks for reading and click the subscribe button below to keep up to date on articles such as these, links to other resources and our own FREE tools and advice.