It’s that time of year again!

The end of 2014 is fast approaching and as we don our dancing shoes and toast to the successes of the year that was, it is important for employers to remain mindful of the legal and HR risks that work parties can pose.

Whilst the end of year work party is a great way to reward staff and promote team bonding, the combination of alcohol and festive cheer can be a recipe for disaster. But never fear – there are some precautions that employers can take to minimise the risk of a post party ‘HR hangover’.

1 – Set start and end times for your party (and stick to them)

It is well established (with some limited exceptions) that work parties are ‘connected’ to a person’s employment. This is the case even when the party takes place offsite. As such, employers continue to owe responsibilities to their staff under OH&S, WorkCover, anti-bullying and equal opportunity legislation. It is even possible for an employer’s obligations to extend beyond the party and there are instances where employers have been held liable for injuries sustained by staff on their journey home.

But it’s not all bah-humbug, employers can seek to minimise any extension of liability by fixing start and end times for parties and, most importantly, by sticking to these times (in other words, try to avoid that ‘one last round of drinks’ after the sanctioned end time of the party).

2 – Ensure alcohol is served responsibly

There is nothing wrong with responsible adults enjoying a few drinks and letting their hair down. But, employers do need to ensure that alcohol is served responsibly.

Simple steps such as serving plenty of food and offering non-alcoholic and low alcohol beverage options can assist with this. It is also useful to have a few sober champions overseeing the party and ensuring that everyone is acting sensibly.

Transportation options should also be arranged – particularly for those staff that are drinking. Arranging buses or cab charges can help ensure everyone arrives home safely.

3 – Promote your policies

Allegations of sexual harassment and other poor conduct are not uncommon in the aftermath of and during work parties. It’s important to remember that what may be funny to one person, can be offensive to another.

Having well drafted policies that set out the required standard of conduct by staff and that make it clear that harassment, sexual harassment, bullying and other poor conduct are unacceptable, can help employers in fulfilling their obligations. Ensuring that there is a well-documented complaints process is also important when it comes to dealing with any post-party issues.

But don’t forget – simply having policies and procedures in place is not enough! Employers need to ensure that their staff know about the policies and procedures and that they are well trained in what standard of behaviour is expected of them. There have been many cases where employers have sought to rely on policy breaches as a ground for dismissal only to have a staff member turn around and (rightfully) say that he/she never knew about the policy. Needless to say, the grounds of dismissal did not stack up well…

Re-distributing policies and procedures in the lead up to parties and providing staff with a friendly reminder about what is expected of them can help minimise the likelihood of any unsavoury behaviour. If a staff member does misbehave, these steps can also assist employers to justify disciplinary action.

4 – Deal with complaints in timely and appropriate manner

On that note, if a staff member has engaged in inappropriate conduct, employers should not ignore it. These matters need to be dealt with in a timely and appropriate manner.

Complaints should be investigated carefully and the alleged offender should be given a proper opportunity to respond to the allegations against them prior to any action being taken. Third party witnesses may also need to be consulted.

It is also important to ensure that confidentiality is maintained throughout the investigation process - unnecessary water cooler gossip only adds further fuel to the HR fire!  

With these tips in mind, go out and celebrate! This is a special time of year and a great time to reward hard working staff. With some tactful thinking, a few precautions and a bit of luck – hopefully your party will be one to remember for the right reasons.

For more information about your rights and obligations please contact:

Jim Rutherford
Harwood Andrews
T: 03 5226 8579

Sonia McCabe
Senior Associate
Harwood Andrews
T: 03 5226 8558