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How do I ensure our work Christmas party doesn't end in a lawsuit?

Wednesday, 19 December 2012 | By James Omond and Peter Vitale

This article first appeared on December 21st, 2011.

 

The work Christmas party is now an almost notorious hotbed for legal risk. Employers need to treat it as an extension of the workplace.

 

Accordingly, any measures that minimise the risk of sexual harassment, equal opportunity or occupational health and safety incidents need to be carefully considered.

 

Remember, under anti-discrimination legislation, employers can only avoid liability for the acts of their employers if they ensure that they take “reasonable” steps to prevent the behaviour.

 

In Victoria, employers have a positive duty to prevent unlawful conduct by employees.

 

Another significant risk is that of physical injury, which might result in the employer being in breach of Occupational Health and Safety legislation or at common law for negligence.

 

It’s also important to understand that conduct at the Christmas party might constitute bullying behaviour, which in itself is a breach of OH&S law.

 

It’s up to employers to take “reasonably practicable” measures to avoid risks to health and safety.

 

If you do have a problem it’s important to treat it as if it happened at work.

 

My top tips for your business Christmas party are as follows:

  • Remind all staff by memo, email or notice board about the standards of behaviour expected and the disciplinary consequences of failing to meet those standards.
  • Reinforce with staff your Equal Opportunity and Occupational Health and Safety policies.
  • Advise employees to exercise extreme caution about what they post on social media websites during the Christmas party.  That tweet may not seem so funny the next morning.
  • Keep service of alcohol to reasonable and responsible levels; ensure you are in a position to slow down or stop service if necessary and supply enough low or non-alcoholic beverages.
  • Make sure you provide a way for people to get home safely, whether that’s a bus, a taxi voucher or a limousine.
  • Make sure you serve plenty of food and make sure it’s served according to applicable food safety standards.
  • Make sure someone monitors hazards such as wet floors and loose electrical cables.

Written in conjunction with industrial relations and employment law specialist Peter Vitale.