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With the festive season just around the corner, as an employer the last thing on your mind should be kicking back at the Christmas party and having a few drinks.

I know I sound like an Ebenezer Scrooge, but there are legal obligations that you need to take seriously at your annual celebration – because all your festive spirit can quickly turn sour if you’re not fully prepared.  It should be no surprise for anyone to learn that alcohol and employment relations just don’t mix. A couple of drinks and an inappropriate comment or an over-friendly gesture could land your business in all sorts of trouble.

Indeed, sexual harassment issues are a huge risk factor at this time of year,  as are OH&S issues, but these coupled with the consumption of alcohol at Christmas have tragedy written all over them.

But let’s face it, this is Australia, and there won’t be too many businesses celebrating at dry Christmas functions this year.   Of course most of your employees will be sensible and responsible in their consumption of alcohol, but it can be really difficult to monitor just who is drinking what.

Duty of care

As your Christmas party or function is considered to be ‘in the course of employment’ you, as an employer, must maintain a duty of care to your employees.  You must also be aware that your obligations extend beyond the party itself.

According to a recent Productivity Commission analysis, Workplace harassment issues cost Australian employers more than $10 billion a year and the Australian economy around $15 billion annually, yet many bosses don’t think about minimising their risk.

The law requires that you take all reasonable steps to prevent inappropriate behaviour and you need to take practical measures to minimise any damage to your business – as well as your own personal liability – should an inappropriate incident occur.

Robust and compliant HR policies

It is essential that you put in place policies concerning bullying, harassment and discrimination as well as drugs and alcohol consumption.  If you haven’t done so already, now is a good time to get them sorted. The Better HR service provides a comprehensive suite of HR policies and HR processes.

Of course, prior to the party, you need to communicate with all staff (in a friendly manner) that unacceptable misbehaviour at the party could result in disciplinary action.   If your event or function is being held mid-week and you’re expecting your employees at the office the next day, provide plenty of non-alcoholic drinks and food and ensure that all staff know that disciplinary action could be taken if they fail to turn up for work because of over-indulging.

When planning the party think about travel arrangements.  Under workers’ compensation laws if your employees are injured travelling to and from work, they may make a workers’ compensation claim.  So if any of your employees hurt themselves while intoxicated on the way home from the Christmas party, a serious workers’ compensation claim could follow.  Minimise risk by providing phone numbers for local cab companies and cabcharge vouchers and encourage staff to use them.

Most importantly, you should ensure staff appreciate that it doesn’t matter where the party is held: it’s connected to work so the usual rules and policies apply.

Timely webinar

So in the lead up to Christmas and to help you make sense of your legal responsibilities, we’re hosting a special webinar on how to avoid an employment relations  disaster at your company’s annual function.

Make sure you don’t miss Christmas headaches – functions & events. It will give you invaluable advice, hints and tips on how to host a Christmas party or function that is merry in all the right ways!

When: Friday December 3rd, 2010

Time:  12:00 PM AEDST

Register now

This article is intended to provide commentary and general information. It should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice may be necessary in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this article. Better HR Pty Ltd is not responsible for the results of any actions taken on the basis of information in this article, nor for any error or omission in this article.