The Ai Group speaks on Christmas parties The Australian Industry Group (Ai Group) is Australia’s peak industry association. Acting on behalf of business for more than 140 years, they are the country’s only truly national employers’ organisation. As a partner of Employment Plus, the Ai Group has offered its advice on workplace Christmas parties.

Christmas functions are notorious for an increased chance of safety-related incidents and other risks such as sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination.

A Christmas party is likely to be considered an activity arising out of, or in the course of, employment. This means that both the employer and employees have obligations which must be maintained.

Careful planning and actions that minimise risk will help to protect employees and ensure the year ends in a celebration rather than in a court.

Safety obligations

Some organisations may allow the consumption of alcohol at work-related social events. Serving drinks to an alcohol-affected employee may lead to liability for the employer in negligence for an injury or accident resulting from the employee’s condition. This liability can extend to an accident that occurs travelling home from the function. However, an employee’s personal culpability may reduce the amount of the employer’s liability.

To minimise safety risks, employers should consider the appropriateness and safety of any venue. For example, by ensuring the safe service of alcohol. If there are employees under the age of 18, ensure the servers understand this and that they or employees do not provide alcoholic drinks to them. Check that the venue is accessible by all employees and guests (e.g. mobility impaired friendly).

Employers should also consider the provision of taxi vouchers to ensure employees’ safe passage home.

Anti-discrimination obligations

Sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination can occur at any time in the workplace. However, the likelihood increases at work-related social functions as people may feel more relaxed and less conscious of appropriate standards of workplace behaviour.

If discrimination or harassment occurs at a work event organised and paid for by the employer, the employer is very likely to be liable.

The sorts of behaviour which can occur in these circumstances include unwelcome touching and kissing, sexual propositions or suggestions, offensive joke-telling and derogatory references in songs.

If the organisation conducts a Kris Kringle (or Secret Santa), ensure that employees understand that any gifts should not cause offence leading to a possible breach of the organisation’s Sexual Harassment, Bullying and Discrimination Policy. All gifts must be fit for family viewing!

If a complaint of sexual harassment or discrimination is made as a result of a work-related function, the employer’s only defence is to show that it took all reasonable steps to prevent the behaviour from occurring.

10 steps to reducing risks from work-related social functions

The following steps can assist employers to meet their obligations to manage the risks from work-related social functions.

  1. If the organisation has a harassment and discrimination policy, check it to ensure that it specifically covers behaviour at social functions. A harassment and discrimination policy should be developed if the organisation does not have such a policy.
  2. If Kris Kringle is part of the organisation’s tradition during the festive season, ensure people understand that gifts must not be of an inappropriate nature.
  3. Consider the safety of the venue where the function is being held. For example, are the factory grounds an appropriate place for the family BBQ? Does the selected external venue have appropriate safety standards? Consider things such as railings on elevated areas, railings on stairs, even ground etc.
  4. Make sure that the organisation has a clear policy on the service of alcohol at work functions, including the setting of reasonable limits on the supply of alcoholic drinks, and providing the option of non-alcoholic drinks.
  5. Set clear start and finish time for social functions.
  6. Consider the employer’s responsibilities for employees who may be under the legal drinking age.
  7. Nominate at least one senior staff member who will not consume alcohol to supervise the consumption of alcohol during the function and to ask people to stop drinking if they have obviously had enough. If necessary, employees showing the effects of alcohol should be sent home in a taxi.
  8. Make sure that there is plenty of food, light alcoholic drinks (if alcohol is being served), water and soft drink. Cool water is essential, particularly if it is a hot day.
  9. Discourage employees who have been consuming alcohol from driving home after the function. It is recommended that employers arrange safe transport home for employees by taxi or some other means.
  10. Remind employees that the organisation’s work health and safety and harassment and discrimination policies will apply even where the function is being held off site. Guidelines could be issued, for example, via email, prior to the social function.

Further advice or assistance

For further advice or assistance on this topic, or any workplace relations matter, Employment Plus clients who have placed two or more candidates have free access to the Ai Group Workplace Advice Line.

Call 1300 862 217 8.30am – 5.15pm AEDT Mon-Fri