Every year, as we move into the end of the year, we write about the ‘silly season’ and warn businesses that they need to be vigilant in their approach to work functions and work related events. Despite these yearly warnings, ever year without failure we receive a range of calls about various incidents that have arisen at work functions and Christmas parties across the country. The regular types of risks that present include sexual harassment, generally offensive behaviour, personal injuries and even assault. The liabilities extend to huge investments of time in respect of investigations, workplace cultural impacts, financial compensation and legal costs.
At the centre of the issue is the need for people to recognise that work functions, Christmas parties and so forth, are an extension of their workplace and the obligations that they owe to their fellow employees to behave properly. If someone crosses the line from appropriate behaviour to inappropriate behaviour then they ought to properly expect that they’ll be held to account for it. However, where an employer has not properly prepared itself and its staff, even the most abhorrent behaviour can prove hard to enforce in a disciplinary manner.
In short, your checklist should include:
- Ensuring your policies relating to workplace behaviour are up to date;
- Redistributing your policies (a link in an email might suffice)
- Ensuring staff have read and understand what the policies stand for and what is appropriate behaviour
- Ensuring the rules for work related events are clearly communicated and in writing (including start and finish times, appropriate consumption of alcohol, responsible service of alcohol, provision of food and non-alcoholic beverages to accompany alcohol consumption, travel arrangements from the events, appropriate reminders about drinking and driving, and appropriate gifts for ‘secret Santa’ type events!).
- Ensure employee’s understand that any ‘after party’ or flow on event is not endorsed or otherwise supported by the business but that staff must be conscious that the way they behave in relation to fellow members of staff can impact on their employment.
The best case that most recently demonstrates why it is important to implement the measures recommended in this article is the matter of Keenan v Leighton Boral Amey Joint Venture. And while the case is a few years old, it reminds us that even where an employee swears at senior managers, sexually harasses fellow employees and becomes uncontrollably inebriated, if you have not carefully implemented these measures, you will likely find it hard to implement and subsequently defend disciplinary action (such as dismissal), and can expose the business to legal liability for the unlawful conduct of employees like sexual harassment or other protections provided for under discrimination and workplace laws.
It is understandable that employers do not want to be seen to be a ‘wet blanket’ before the party has even started, but it is vital that you do take these steps to place your business in the best position to defend itself against claims arising from circumstances out of its control and to be able to implement remedial action and disciplinary measures when warranted and appropriate.
Contact ABLA on 1300 565 846 if you have any questions or concerns related to this article.