As the holiday season approaches, many employers are starting to organise their end of year parties to celebrate the year, build morale and encourage team bonding. An often-overlooked aspect of planning these parties is the employer’s legal risks and responsibilities.
Whether it is held during or after office hours the end of year party, like other work-related events, is still subject to the same legal obligations that apply while workers are at work. The law makes no exceptions for end of year parties. Employers will still have their duty of care to employees and must take reasonable steps to identify and reduce risks and to eliminate discriminatory or harassing conduct. This may extend to being ‘vicariously liable’ for the acts of employees both at the party and afterwards. Individuals engaging in discriminatory or harassing conduct can also be found personally liable for their actions.
Without proper planning and preparation, high levels of alcohol consumption in a more relaxed off duty environment can increase the risk profile of the end of year party.
One recent example of where a work-related end of year party went wrong in 2015 concerned an employee under the influence of alcohol who pushed another employee into a swimming pool1. The managing director directed the employee to leave the party, only to be abused and assaulted by that employee. Afterwards, the employee’s employment was terminated. During the unfair dismissal proceedings, the employee argued that the decision to terminate his employment was unfair as the employer had given him unlimited access to alcohol and encouraged its consumption. Ultimately the Fair Work Commission accepted the employer’s arguments in defence and the employee lost his job, but the employer suffered reputational damage and the goodwill gained at the event was diminished.
Your risk assessment should be done well before the party starts. Here are 10 sensible steps to help manage your end of year party risks:
- Make sure that your appropriate workplace behaviour policies are up to date.
- Distribute your policies to all staff.
- Review your insurance policies to see the extent of the insurance coverage of the party.
- Establish clear start and finishing times.
- Undertake a risk assessment of the venue to identify risks and hazards. Swimming pools and balconies are notorious problem areas that might be made out of bounds.
- Pick a location that has transportation options (or provide transport) and direct employees that they should not drive if they intend to drink.
- Send all staff an email expressing the positive intent of the party, together with a caution against inappropriate behaviour and excessive consumption of alcohol, before the party starts.
- Appoint a senior person who will stay sober to supervise the party. This person should take appropriate action to avoid escalating behaviour, such as sending someone home or if necessary closing the bar.
- At the party, monitor the service of alcohol and the provision of food and non-alcoholic alternatives. Ensure that underage employees do not have access to alcohol.
- If there are any complaints deal with them early, promptly and properly in line with your policy.
If you aren’t sure that your policy is appropriate or if you are unsure how to properly asses legal risks then don’t hesitate to give any of the employment law team at Thomson Geer a call to discuss.