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Employer's Guide to the Festive Season Part 3: Keeping the Christmas cheer in check during work functions

18 December 2019
Glass enclave reception area of a corporate building
With the Christmas / New Year period upon us our gift to you is a Christmas-themed article series. In this three-part series, Michelle Dawson will explore the key issues faced by employers that, if not handled carefully, can quickly turn the holiday season into a not-so-wonderful time of the year for employers.

In particular, this series will look at:
1. The dos and don'ts of holiday shut-down periods;
2. Key things to consider when utilising casual employees during the holiday rush; and
3. Why it's important to keep the Christmas cheer in check at end of year celebrations.

Part 3: Keeping the Christmas cheer in check during work functions
'Tis the season … but for employers, it can be a difficult task this time of year to ensure that the 'elves' (also known as employees) keep the festive cheer in check! 

In this third and final article of our three part Festive Season article series we look at some of the lessons that can be taken from Christmas parties, and – as our final gift to you for 2019: a preventative checklist which every employer should implement when the silly season rolls around next year. 

"But it wasn’t a work event…"
In Drake & Bird v BHP Coal Pty Ltd [2019] FWC 7444, BHP found itself in hot water after it terminated two workers involved in a verbal altercation and physical brawl with a BHP supervisor. 

BHP had opted not to throw a staff Christmas party however, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) determined that workers and their family members gathering at a venue for a common purpose (i.e. to celebrate the holidays together) was enough to establish that the event in question was work-related.

The dreaded 'sickie'

An all too common occurrence after a Christmas party - someone inevitably calls in sick the next day.
In Chapman v Tassal Group Limited T/A Tassal Operations Pty Ltd [2017] FWC 4630, Ms Chapman left a voicemail stating that she had "over indulged" and would not be fit for work the next day. Tassal Group terminated her employment and she alleged her dismissal was unfair.

The FWC held that Ms Chapman's dismissal was harsh given her five year employment history with Tassal Group, despite finding that it did have a valid reason in circumstances where Ms Chapman had chosen to over indulge to such an extent as to be unable to fulfil her obligations to attend for work the next day. Any compensation awarded to Ms Chapman was reduced by 25% due to her own actions contributing "in a material way…to her own downfall."

Whilst disciplinary action may be considered where personal leave is attributable to the irresponsible consumption of alcohol at the work event, the same tenements of procedural fairness continue to apply. 

Our Christmas Cheer Preventative Checklist:
Whilst there is no fail safe plan to keep employees off the naughty list, we have devised 10 preventative steps that we consider each employer should implement to reduce its Christmas party risks:

1. Ensure your workplace has easily accessible, up-to-date policies covering discrimination, bullying and harassment, work health and safety, social media and drug and alcohol use.

2. It has become a frequently mocked cliché, but ahead of the festive season, regardless of whether or not you plan to host a Christmas party for your clients or staff, remind all employees (ideally in writing) of the standard of behaviour expected of them and warn them about the disciplinary consequences of failing to meet the expected standard.

3. If you're having a themed Christmas party ensure the theme is not likely to cause offence, exclude people or unwittingly lead to inappropriate or discriminatory costumes or displays.

4. If you are hosting an event (which will provide you with more control and, in turn, potentially assist to mitigate this risk) ensure the responsible service of alcohol (having a service arrangement, rather than an Esky in the corner is best), provide plenty of food and provide non-alcoholic alternatives.

5. Where some employees are under the legal drinking age, make sure that you/the venue have/has systems in place to ensure they are not given access to alcohol (this could be as simple as coloured armbands to denote those unable to purchase or consume alcohol).

6. Appoint a responsible "sober" person, who is keeping an eye on the festivities and is able to take appropriate action should any issues ensue, to supervise the function.

7. Set clear start and finish times for the function (and ensure that the service of alcohol ends when the event does).

8. Do not organise (or pay for) post-function drinks – it's safer to call it a night!

9. Ensure there is a safe means of transportation home for employees (and strongly discourage anyone who intends on drinking from driving).

10. Deal with any issues promptly and in accordance with your company policies.

If you are unsure what your obligations are with respect to holiday functions and events, please do not hesitate to contact a member of our Australian Employment team.

We would like to acknowledge the contributions of Nicole Davis and Brittany Turrner to this article.

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the Employer's Guide to the Festive Season.

Further Reading