Office parties are a time for fun, not regret

By Michael Selinger on November 10th, 2016
  1. Employee health & wellbeing
  2. Drugs and Alcohol Policy

crazy businessmen dancing

With the workforce looking forward to the holiday season (and the end of news about the US elections), businesses who are looking to conduct an end-of-year function need to keep their wits about them.

The aim is to make sure a good time is had by all, but to do that will require you to also prioritise everyone’s safety. This is because most parties involve a combination of alcohol and a feeling of ‘letting it all go’, which can sometimes result in unsavoury incidents taking place before, during or shortly after the event.

Unfortunately, it’s common for harassment (in particular sexual harassment) and even violence to take place during these events, including events that staff attend at other organisations on behalf of the business.

And don’t forget, words alone often constitute discrimination or harassment. While the individual perpetrator will be held liable, your organisation can also be vicariously liable.

A $40,000 example

In the recent case of Murugesu v Australia Post & Anor (2016), Australia Post was held to be vicariously liable for the racially discriminatory conduct of one of its managers towards a sub-contractor. The employer had not taken enough reasonable steps to prevent the racial abuse that had been hurled at the sub-contractor over a number of years. And so Australia Post and the manager were ordered to pay the worker a total of $40,000 in loss and damage.

So, what are the best strategies for dealing with these risks, and how can you avoid any claims or complaints? The best place to start is to consider the following questions:

  • Are you satisfied that everyone in your organisation understands the required standards for acceptable behaviour?
  • Do you have policies in place that set out clearly what will happen if any staff member is involved in misconduct?
  • For the event itself, what does your organisation have in place to monitor conduct, including alcohol consumption?

Never assume

You cannot ensure people know what is acceptable behaviour (or not) unless you have clear, written policies setting this out. Most organisations tend to have a few policies that overlap when it comes to end-of-year functions, such as an Alcohol & Drug policy, Respect in the Workplace policy and a Social Media policy. It is important to remind people of these policies before the end of year function – it’s no good leaving it to the week before and hoping for the best.

Also, a policy is only a piece of paper. It is of no benefit if the organisation has not conducted any recent training in the policies for a long time. It is critical that this training happens for managers who will be expected to monitor and enforce the policies at the end of year event. So don’t let your managers completely off the hook on the night – their role in supervising the function, including responsible alcohol consumption, is very important. This also extends to carefully planning for the event.

While your focus can be on delivering a highly enjoyable end-of-year function and celebrating a year of hard work, don’t let it end in an unfortunate, preventable incident.
There is enough time between now and the end of the year to put in place these simple steps to ensure a happy and safe Christmas function for your workforce.

Chapter M2 of the Health & Safety Handbook deals exclusively with Managing Work-Related Functions.

The advice in this chapter, and the entire Handbook, is written by the health & safety legal experts at Holding Redlich.

Take an obligation-free trial of the Handbook to find out everything you need to know about conducting a safe work-related function as well as the multitude of other subjects that contribute to making your workplace as safe as possible for employees and visitors, while protecting your business legally.

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