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The end of year festive season is approaching fast. After the last two year’s challenging seasons where most businesses either cancelled their end of year events such as Christmas parties or were limited to numbers of attendees and vaccination requirements due to the COVID 19 outbreak and the rise of the hybrid part work from home and part work in the office mode of work rising resulting lesser employee interaction, most businesses are looking forwards to bringing everyone together for the end of year celebrations.

While festive events provide workplaces with an opportunity to celebrate, socialise and build a positive workplace culture, they also create a potential environment for employees to exhibit inappropriate conduct that could lead to legal consequences such as bullying, discrimination, sexual harassment, or compensation claims, as well as health and safety breaches.

Employers have a duty of care to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their employees, so far as is reasonably practicable. It is undisputed that this duty of care extends beyond the four walls of the office.

As such, workplace events, even away from the normal work location are still considered work events and includes situations that are outside normal working hours, such as Christmas parties. In some cases, the workplace can include an after-party or after-work drinks, even if unsanctioned by the employer.

Below are some steps employers can take to ensure minimal exposure to end of year workplace Christmas party shenanigans.

1. Assess the risk

Businesses should conduct a risk assessment of the workplace social event conducted either at the office or at an external establishment by considering matters such as:

  • number of employees who will attend
  • opportunities for physical distancing
  • engineering controls such as ventilation
  • personal and hand hygiene, including availability of hand sanitiser
  • ensuring food is handled to an appropriate COVID-safe standard
  • regular cleaning of areas
  • availability of rapid antigen testing for employees who exhibit covid like symptoms
  • wearing of face masks and other appropriate personal protective equipment where necessary.
  • ensuring the venue has Responsible Service of Alcohol and establishing your own expectations of overly intoxicated people not being served anymore alcohol.

2. Update internal policies and procedures

This might also be a good opportunity to update all internal policies and procedures relating to workplace behaviour, namely work-related social functions policy, workplace health and safety policy, bullying, sexual harassment policy and COVID-19 safety procedures are up to date, including well written procedure outlined for employees to follow if they experience or witness behaviour, they consider to be inappropriate.

3. Remind employees of their obligations and set expectations

Before events, remind employees about their responsibility to exhibit appropriate workplace behaviour and to comply with appropriate workplace behaviour policies, workplace codes of conduct and organisational values.

It is not enough to simply have policies in place that prohibit inappropriate behaviour. Employees must be aware of and understand the policies, including that a failure to comply may result in disciplinary action, such as potential termination of their employment, and/or legal proceedings being brought against them personally.

Communicate clearly in writing ahead of the Christmas Party reiterating the business’ expectations around appropriate standards of conduct and responsible drinking. Emphasize that workplace policies still apply during these events and as such any misconduct will be dealt with accordingly.

Accompany this email with any relevant policies as noted above.

4. Event time and Travel arrangement

It is important that any invitation to end of year celebrations such as Christmas parties clearly set out defined start and finish times for the event.

Shut down the bar at the finish time and stop paying for any alcohol, even at an after event.

Consider how employees will travel to and from the event. This can be as simple as encouraging employees to plan their travel ahead of time such as sharing a ride, uber, family or friend pick up or organise and appoint a designated driver.

Choose a venue that does not place the employee in a difficult situation to get home, otherwise assist with transport options for employees such as cab charges.

Ensure you consider if you have obligations with your compensation insurance for employees travelling to and from work, which will likely include the end of year functions.

5. Manage misconduct and complaints fairly

Be aware that even with all the above measures put in place, events where alcohol is served can affect employee behaviour.

In the event an incident occurs, employers are obligated to investigate and respond to the complaints or allegations in observance of procedural fairness.

Be mindful that you may need to take action at the event immediately. Waiting to the New Year to handle a complaint may or may not be the correct course of action.

Lastly, Alcohol is not an obligatory requirement at any event, particularly for enjoyment of all. Consider your business and your past experiences having end of year parties. Do you have any concerns about serving alcohol at a work event. If you have any concerns at all, consider having an event without alcohol. Perhaps an employee family event in a park is something that your business may feel more comfortable with.

The BetterHR Advice team is there to assist you if you have any enquiries regarding end of year parties.

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