The annual work Christmas party is usually the one and only opportunity for workmates to really let their hair down, socialise away from the usual constraints of work and celebrate the festive season … a celebration which unfortunately has the potential to result in a whole host of legal issues for the employer, such as alcohol-fuelled violence and other inappropriate conduct.
Employers have an over-riding responsibility to ensure the health and safety of their employees at all times, and therefore have an obligation to take all reasonable steps to protect their staff. Ultimately, it comes down to ensuring that there is a policy in place regarding the Christmas party, which all employees should be aware of – sending a simple email to all staff prior to the event is not too hard, but will go a long way to protect your employees. After all, despite the party being held outside of normal work hours and/or off-site, workplace policies – and employers’ responsibilities and obligations – more often than not still apply.
Employers should inform all employees of expectations regarding conduct at the Christmas party (e.g. all employees should act responsibly), and also set out the types of behaviour that will be accepted and not accepted (e.g. an expectation that alcohol will not be consumed in excess). In addition, it is a prudent time for employers to review the workplace’s human resources policies regarding harassment (including sexual harassment), Workplace Health & Safety (this should cover physical injury at the party, whether or not fuelled by excessive alcohol consumption), and responsible service of alcohol.
As always, it is a lot easier to be proactive rather than reactive.
Nevertheless, despite the employer taking all reasonable steps prior to the party to ensure that it goes off without a hitch, issues may still arise. Therefore the employer should ensure that the workplace also has a policy to deal with post-party incidents. If an employee is concerned about an incident at the party, the employee should be assured that he or she can confidentially discuss the incident with human resources.
Remember that the risks are not just confined to the Christmas party – this time of year tends to bring all sorts of conduct out of employees, as they prepare for holidays and other end-of-year celebrations – this could include an offensive Kris-Kringle present, an unwelcome comment, or inappropriate “joke staff awards”.