‘Tis the season to be jolly sensible

The office Christmas party can be a great place to unwind, celebrate your wins and socialise with your staff and work colleagues. But unwind a little too much, or fail to act on employee’s complaints about inappropriate behaviour towards them, and your business, culture and potentially bottom line can take a big hit.

Every January and February there is a rise in policy changes, health and safety audits, investigations, disciplinary action, and subsequent dismissals as a result of sexual harassment, discrimination, workplace bullying, assault and inappropriate behaviour complaints that come from end of year events. But it doesn’t need to get to this point.

If you really think about it there are a number of legal issues that arise from a work environment where employees let their “hair down” – especially when it includes a fine bottle of red wine or an Ardbeg or two.

For Human Resources, preventive action can save a lot of reactionary work in the New Year. Here’s what you need to know to protect your business, while still having a great time at your office Christmas party.

Tips for employers

No open bar

Be responsible as an employer. Understand that the environment you set for your Christmas party can impact the behaviour of your staff. An open bar tab or an esky full of alcohol that staff help themselves to could lead to inappropriate behaviour and misconduct.

Set expectations

Ensure staff know what is expected of them at the Christmas party and what behaviour will and will not be tolerated. Office parties can escalate into serious problems if employees are not provided with information on what is appropriate behaviour.  Keep in mind there is no such thing as common sense; having expectations set out in a written document such as a policy or memorandum to staff is a good risk mitigation tool.

Also let staff know that what they may think is “funny” or a “joke” to others could be considered offensive.  Banter, lewd jokes, casual flirting and commenting on a colleagues dress can all be (rightly or wrongly) considered as harassment.

Duty of Care and reputation – take care of it

 Remember that it’s not only the values and reputation of your brand that you need to be mindful of at work events, you also have a duty of care to other staff members who may be affected by the bad behaviour of another staff member.

Social Media publicity

In this age there is an emphasis on the use of social media and your business might even rely upon social media very heavily in your marketing strategy.  Be careful about what is posted on social media regarding the celebrations and have a social media policy (or refresh staff on this) prior to the office Christmas party.

Defamatory comments or comments of an inappropriate nature on social media could lead to negative publicity and even accusations by other staff members of sexual harassment, workplace bullying or discrimination.

Address issues quickly

Attempt to resolve any issues at the work party as quickly as possible. Addressing an issue before it spirals out of control may allow you to maintain a more harmonious workplace and reduce the likelihood of dismissal and litigation.

Take complaints seriously

If a complaint is made take it seriously. While bad behaviour by an employee is a very uncomfortable issue to deal with, especially if they are a high performer, tough discussions should never be ignored. If you don’t, you may find yourself facing substantial penalties if the matter is taken further.

A Show Cause process should be followed

If you are looking to dismiss an employee for misconduct (or take disciplinary action), it’s essential that you follow a show cause process before dismissing employees. Not only will this limit your potential liability, but it will also demonstrate that you respect the opinions of all employees.

Be careful of your reaction

If the misconduct is serious, a knee-jerk reaction like dismissing without notice might feel good at the time, but it will increase the risk of a successful unfair dismissal, or general protections claim. Not considering issues like medical illness and personal family problems or not obtaining the ‘full story’ from all participants can be costly.

Set up the grounds for termination

Where your employees have repeatedly misbehaved and contravened your orders to cease the behaviour, you will likely have good grounds for termination. In these cases seek advice from your employment law specialist to make sure you the dismissal is handled in the right way.

Need further advice on how to minimise your risks at your office Christmas party? Call NB Lawyers, the lawyers for employers, on +61 (07) 3876 5111.

About the Author

Jonathan Mamaril is the principal and director of NB Lawyers, the lawyers for employers, and a specialist in employment law. Over the last ten years, Jonathan has helped hundreds of employers understand their legal requirements, mitigate risk and liability, protect their reputation and achieve their goals for business growth and expansion.