How to ensure your business doesn't cop a lawsuit after the office Christmas party

Keep the office Christmas party jolly. Photo: The Office TV series/ IMDb.

The Christmas-New Year period is called the silly season for a reason as people go to parties, drink and are a little more carefree with their decisions.

But this isn’t necessarily a good combination for an office Christmas party. Harmless tipsiness can quickly turn into bawdy and insensitive jokes or unwanted advances that can leave a business vulnerable to being sued for discrimination or bullying.

Online legal service Legalvision says the complainant doesn’t even have to have been the target of the offensive behaviour, just overhearing colleagues speak inappropriately could be construed as sexual harassment and penalties can be enforced.

To ensure your company doesn’t start the New Year on a bad note Legalvision has offered some tips to protect both employees and your business.

1. Know your policies and enforce them.

Your employees’ behaviour could breach your workplace Sexual Harassment Policy, providing grounds to potentially terminate their employment contract. As we enter into the silly season, it is sensible to revisit these and to ensure your employees are familiar with your expectations of their behaviour, circulating a reminder attaching the actual policy document is always a good start.

2. Have a firm understanding of what does and doesn’t constitute “work time”.

Behaviour during work time is regulated by the workplace policies and legislation. Behaviour outside work time is, generally, not. But what counts as “work time” and, consequently, the extent of your responsibility is sometimes a blurry line, and you should be sure to be mindful of when you are on the clock.

Employers can also be held vicariously liable unless they can show that steps were taken to prevent the occurrence of the offensive conduct. If your workers want to “kick on” after the work party has come to an end, make it explicit that any continuing functions are not deemed to be in the course of work.

3. Take care of your interstate staff.

If you have workers that are coming to the office specifically for the Christmas party, you could be held liable for their injuries sustained outside of the festivities if they are found to be in the course of their employment. Even an employee falling down in the shower could expose an employer to liability, so consider dropping a little extra coin on their accommodation to ensure it is safe!

4. Exercise responsible service of alcohol.

It was recently found contradictory and self-defeating for employers to require compliance with its usual standards of behaviour at a work party while at the same time giving its workers an unlimited supply of alcohol. The lesson? Don’t be cheap on the food and over-generous on the bar tab.

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