It used to be the case that we would publish a warning article about workplace Christmas parties at around this time every year. Sadly, in recent years, such warnings have not been necessary as COVID concerns all but eliminated year-end workplace functions. It is with mixed feelings, then, that we re-launch our annual “Silly Season” warning as work Christmas parties appear to be in full swing again.
Our regular, seasonal warning is about the multiple risks facing an employer in holding work Christmas parties, and the necessity of having effective policies to deal with social functions and misconduct. Mixed with alcohol, Christmas parties can encourage employees to lose their inhibitions and engage in poor behaviour. This often results in complaints, from sexual harassment and bullying, to verbal abuse and physical violence. Added to this is the ever-present obligation on the employer to ensure a healthy and safe workplace, which extends to work-related social functions which might occur outside of the work premises, and outside working hours.
A well-drafted social functions policy can be an effective tool for employers to control staff behaviour and to take action in the event of misconduct.
Behaviour not “at work”
Whether or not conduct is sufficiently connected with work and the workplace can have a bearing on an employer’s ability to take disciplinary action in the event that an employee engages in misconduct at a social function. We have commented on a number of Fair Work Commission decisions which have considered whether a social occasion is a work-related function, and that employer policies and codes of conduct apply. A decision on this issue will turn on the particular facts of each case, which can make it difficult for an employer to determine when their workplace policies will apply.
A social functions policy can remove some of this guesswork and clarify to all employees that a work Christmas party is a work-related function, and that all of the employer’s policies dealing with conduct and behaviour will apply. This has the advantage of clearly setting the employer’s expectations of employees’ conduct at social functions such as work Christmas parties, and the likely consequences if those expectations are not met.
Supply of alcohol
Supply of alcohol is a problematic area and one that frequently comes up in relation to Christmas and end of year work functions. Employers’ obligations to ensure a safe and healthy workplace extend to work-related social functions, and employers do have an obligation to ensure that any alcohol is served responsibly, and that employee behaviour is monitored to help avoid problems, and accidents, occurring.
A social functions policy can assist to manage these issues, for example by providing for the limitation of alcohol to be served, or appointing persons to monitor alcohol consumption or staff behaviour during the function and authorising those persons to take action if required. A social functions policy should also consider appropriate arrangements to ensure the safe transport of employees at the conclusion of the function.
Disciplinary action can be compromised if employer standards are inconsistently applied. A policy can assist by setting those standards, as well as setting appropriate and consistent processes in the event of a breach of those standards. Once a policy is in place, it is important to ensure that all actions taken are consistent with the policy.
Lessons for employers
Lots of complaints and unfair dismissals arise out of work Christmas parties. Having an effective social function policy can assist an employer to:
- satisfy its obligations to ensure a safe and healthy workplace and
- set standards of behaviour for employees at workplace functions and
- enforce appropriate disciplinary action against employees in the event of misconduct.
It is a good time now for employers to check if they have a social functions policy, or to update an existing policy, and to make sure that all staff are aware of the policy, and understand the standards of behaviour expected at workplace functions.
If you would like some advice on a social functions policy, or if you need a policy which is customised to suit your particular needs, please call us.