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Christmas functions are notorious for an increased chance of safety-related incidents (both at the function and leaving it) and other risks such as sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination (for example, derogatory comments about a person’s ethnicity or their sick leave history that the employee thinks is ‘just a joke’ or did not intend to offend).

Alcohol combined with a party atmosphere increases the likelihood of an untoward incident occurring even more.  Above all else employee safety should be at the forefront of an employer’s mind.  If discrimination or harassment occurs at a work function that is organised or sponsored by an employer, then they are very likely to be vicariously liable for such behaviour unless they can demonstrate that they took all reasonable steps to reduce, mitigate and manage the conduct.

In addition, continuing to serve drinks to an alcohol-impaired employee may lead to liability arising from the law of negligence.  This liability can also extend to an accident that involves an employee who is travelling home from a work function.  Another further risk is those involving negligence claims from third parties.  

Third party negligence claims can arise when:

  • Family members attend work-related functions;
  • Functions are held in public venues – a fellow reveller may make a claim; or
  • A worker, driving home from a work-related function under the influence of alcohol, causes an injury to another person.

The above discussion means that there is more to managing the risk of Christmas parties than sending a memo to all staff to remind them of the need for appropriate behaviour.  The memo or all staff email is still very important but is not the only action employers should take.  There are a number of further steps that should be undertaken before, during and post function to manage incidents that may occur.  Given the above risks, the guidelines below apply to any work sponsored event (in which alcohol is served) with additional considerations for a Christmas function.

Before the Function
The business should ensure that it has a policy covering employee behaviour at social functions.  To that end, check that your organisation’s sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination policy has been updated and is contemporary.

Consider the Appropriateness and Safety of the Venue
Check that the venue ensures safe service of alcohol.  If you have employees less than 18 years of age, ensure the servers understand this and that they or employees do not provide alcoholic drinks to them.  Is the venue accessible by all employees and guests (eg mobility impaired friendly)?  Does the ambience of the venue encourage appropriate or inappropriate behaviour?

Also ensure the venue you choose for the function is located near public transport in order for employees to leave the function without needing to drive themselves.

Consider Food
Make sure there will be enough food.  Functions that offer small servings of finger food but freely available alcohol may exacerbate the risk of inappropriate behaviour and injury by increasing the likelihood of employees over-indulging.

If the organisation does not have an appropriate food budget (that is, sufficient to cover a meal for each employee), it should reduce the alcohol budget proportionately and ensure responsible service. Regardless of food portion sizes, the employer must provide a range of non-alcoholic drink options.

Kris Kringle
If the organisation conducts a Kris Kringle (or secret Santa), ensure that employees understand that any gifts they purchase must be ‘G’ rated.  This means that the recipient or others who will see the present (or even hear of it afterwards), should not have cause for offence leading to a possible breach of the organisation’s Sexual Harassment, Bullying and Discrimination Policy.  All gifts must be appropriate and in good taste.

Notice to Employees
The business needs to communicate to employees about the upcoming function.  The notice should be in writing and maybe distributed by hand or email.  The notice has two key mitigation objectives.

First, it acts as a reminder to employees of their obligations under the organisation’s policies and procedures and to encourage them to be safe and responsible at the function and afterwards.

Second, it also serves as evidence that the employer took all reasonably practical steps to prevent conduct in breach of its policies.

At the Function
The organisation should ensure that at least one senior staff member does not consume alcohol and monitors employee consumption of alcohol and behaviour at the event.  This person, should have sufficient authority to ‘have a quiet word’ when necessary to limit or stop individuals or event wide drinking of alcohol.

Also, ensure that any employees who ‘kick on after’ the function, are made aware that this is not part of the work function and as such is not sanctioned for supported by the organisation.

Post Function
The organisation should conduct a post function review to ensure that the event met the needs of the organisation’s planning.  If any complaints are received, they should be taken seriously and properly investigated.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that many employees also attend other organisation’s functions in the course of employment, particularly at Christmas.  For example, a manager may attend a string of parties or events held by advisers, suppliers or contractors to the organisation. These events present the same risk and liability issues as internal functions so organisations need to ensure that employees attending outside gatherings in the course of their employment understand the required standard of conduct and consider how such employees can safely travel home.