Australia: Office Christmas parties…'tis the season to think before you drink

Last Updated: 13 December 2015
Article by Daria McLachlan

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...and office parties are in full swing! Unfortunately Santa's gift to employers tends to be an increase in workplace claims arising from sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination and work health and safety breaches. This is unlikely to make any employer jolly, but there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of such claims arising.

The obligations of employers

The legal obligations of employers continue to apply during work Christmas parties. Employers owe a duty of care to their employees and must take reasonable steps to reduce potential risks to their health and safety. This includes protecting them from the heightened likelihood of sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination and safety breaches that tend to come hand-in-hand with alcohol consumption.

The general position is that employers will be vicariously liable for employees' misconduct unless the employer can show it has taken all reasonable steps to prevent the conduct from occurring. The case law makes it clear that this obligation extends to work Christmas parties and other work-related functions.

Lessons learnt from the courts

The decision of Ewin v Vergara (No 3) is an example of where an employer was found to be vicariously liable for sexual harassment. In this case, it was held that inappropriate sexual conduct that took place in a taxi and at a hotel was connected to employment because the

Employers owe a duty of care to their employees and must take reasonable steps to reduce potential risks to their health and safety.

behaviour was part of a course of conduct that had started in the workplace.

A recent decision before the Fair Work Commission has highlighted the difficulties employers can experience when disciplining misbehaving employees if they do not have appropriate controls in place before work functions are held. In Keenan v Leighton Boral Amey Joint Venture, the Commission held that dismissing an employee for drunken and inappropriate conduct at a work Christmas party where the supply of alcohol was unlimited and unmonitored was unfair. During the party a male employee made offensive comments to a number of his co-workers and later attended a public bar with his colleagues where he swore at his boss and made unwelcome sexual advances to a female co-worker. As a result of this conduct, the employee was dismissed.

The employee filed for unfair dismissal and was successful in part because the employer had provided him with unlimited alcohol, despite his obvious intoxication. This was held to be a mitigating factor for his conduct as he could not be held accountable for his behaviour to the degree necessary for dismissal. This decision confirms that employers may not be in a position to insist on appropriate standards of conduct at functions if they serve unlimited amounts of free alcohol.

In the decision of Canny v Primepower Engineering, an apprentice suffered serious burns to 60% of his body when he was engulfed in flames at a birthday party at work. The employer provided 11 kegs of beer at the party. A number of intoxicated employees subsequently started working on an engine using flammable liquids, which resulted in the apprentice's injuries.

The apprentice sued the employer for damages on the basis that it had been negligent in allowing employees to work on the engine while intoxicated. The Court held that the employer had breached its duty of care by providing free-flowing alcohol at work and that it had failed to provide a safe system of work by not adequately supervising the employees.

Tips to reduce your risk

To avoid a Christmas party legal hangover, we recommend the following:

  1. Before your function, remind your employees that it is a work event and that appropriate standards of behaviour, as set out in your workplace policies, are expected.
  2. Identify any potential hazards by performing a risk assessment of the party venue.
  3. Warn employees about the potential consequences of inappropriate behaviour.
  4. Set a start and finish time for the function and make it clear that events/activities that occur outside of this time frame are not endorsed by the employer.
  5. Ensure a senior employee is assigned to stay sober and monitor behaviour and alcohol consumption. This role may require taking action to address escalating behaviour, such as sending someone home or closing the bar.
  6. Comply with responsible service of alcohol requirements and provide sufficient food and non-alcoholic drinks at the event. If an employee is visibly intoxicated then cut off their alcohol supply.
  7. Ensure you have up-to-date policies and procedures on bullying and harassment, discrimination, social media, work health and safety, and drug and alcohol use. You should also have policies that set out your complaints process so that any incidents can be swiftly and appropriately addressed.
  8. Communicate your policies and procedures to your employees and ensure appropriate training is provided.
  9. Immediately deal with all complaints in a professional and confidential manner.
  10. Review your applicable insurance policy to assess whether the proposed Christmas function is covered.

There is no need to be a Grinch when it comes to your Christmas party. It is simply a matter of being prepared and having systems in place to ensure you can manage and address any issues that may arise during your event. We wish you a happy and liability-free Christmas!

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
Daria McLachlan
 
Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Mondaq Advice Centre (MACs)
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.

Disclaimer

Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.

Registration

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.

Cookies

A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.

Links

This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.

Mail-A-Friend

If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.

Security

This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.