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November 29, 2018
‘Tis the season to be jolly and as workplaces around Australia wind down for another year, employers and HR managers are turning their minds to one of the most fraught events on the professional working calendar: the Christmas Party.
Over the next few weeks Australian workplaces will take a moment to indulge in some festive revelry. In most cases the Christmas Party is a harmless get-together amongst colleagues. In other cases however, they can turn into a horror story littered with alcohol-fuelled incidents that leave everyone red-faced.
There’s the story of one project coordinator at an engineering firm who, in a drunken Christmas Party spree, threw a colleague into a swimming pool before punching a senior manager who’d asked him to leave. He was sacked by his employer, a decision that was upheld when the employee instigated an Unfair Dismissal claim.
However, there’s also the story of a team leader at major asset maintenance company who swore at a Director, forcibly kissed a female colleague and made several unwanted sexual advances towards another. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was sacked. Yet he claimed to be unfairly dismissed, and the Fair Work Commission agreed with him because his company had not followed procedural fairness in his dismissal. This dismissal was overturned.
While no-one likes a Grinch, the Christmas Party presents a unique HR headache for employers who want to celebrate with staff and reward their hard work. It’s a difficult task: how do you pull off a great event without enabling unruly staff behaviour that could potentially have long term consequences for the business, professional relationships and individual careers?
Here’s how to organise a safe, fun Christmas Party without becoming Scrooge.
Your duty of care to employees extends to work-related events, and this includes the Christmas Party. At the very least you should have a policy that clearly outlines employees’ obligations and expected standards of conduct at work related events. In the lead up to the party make sure staff are reminded of standards of acceptable behaviour and their obligations to comply with Company policies, particularly those relating to matters such as bullying and harassment, drugs and alcohol in the workplace and health and safety.
The policies should be made available to all staff prior to the event. Staff should also be made aware of the start/finish times of the party and that any activities carried out after these times are not an extension of the Christmas party.
While it’s easy to picture the staff Christmas Party as a boozy affair, a heavy drinking session isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. Others may not drink at all, and perhaps some employees don’t celebrate Christmas. It’s important to think of all the different ways to celebrate the occasion and offer a variety food, drink and entertainment options so that everyone has the opportunity to participate.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that some of the biggest Christmas Party horror stories come from events where employers had offered an open bar. It’s a recipe for over-indulgence and invites trouble. And you can’t reliably expect the venue to enforce its own responsible service guidelines.
Offering drink tokens, smaller bar tabs or even asking staff to contribute to the cost of their own drinks (yes, it’s ok to make them pay) are ways to encourage people to take more responsibility with their consumption.
The time and location of the party is important, and can often dictate how much people drink and how late they stay out. If you’re hosting an evening party certain taxi companies offer discounts and booking vouchers for company events, while a day-time Christmas Party means public transport will still be a viable option for people needing to get home after the event.
Many companies have designated ‘Sober Staff’ at the Christmas Party, someone (usually from the senior ranks) who can monitor staff conduct and quickly enact a strategy to quell boozy behaviour by calling a taxi for a drunk employee or directing them to leave where necessary. For the designated Sober Staff it means swapping the booze for some Orange Juice, but it can save a stack of HR headaches and gives the company a front-line defence against any employee who starts to overstep the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.
Sometimes even the best laid plans are no match for the potent mix of boisterous staff and free-flowing alcohol. Incidents do happen, and some of them are serious. And while it can seem like instant sacking is warranted, as we’ve seen from the cases above, dismissal isn’t always an open-and-shut case. Get advice on preparing appropriate policies, how to investigate any incidents, and the disciplinary process that should apply to your situation.
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