Australia: Work Christmas parties – setting boundaries of behaviour and staying out of trouble

Last Updated: 7 December 2016
Article by Nathan Luke

The circumstances in which you can sack a worker for terrible behaviour at a Christmas party, or a work function, are not as obvious as one would think.

Sacking for bad behaviour at Christmas party found to be harsh and unfair

An important Fair Work Commission decision, Keenan v Leighton Boral Amey Joint Venture [2015] FWC 3156, involved a Mr Keenan and his case for unfair dismissal compensation against his employer, Leighton Boral.

At the work Christmas party, an intoxicated Mr Keenan acted poorly. He propositioned female co-workers, even kissing one uninvited. He was verbally abusive to his superiors. After an investigation, he was fired.

The Commission found that the termination was harsh and unfair. They accepted that Mr Keenan should have been disciplined and counselled, but not terminated in the circumstances. An important factor was that the employer had provided free and unlimited alcohol and thus was partly responsible.

Further, a number of Mr Keenan's indiscretions took place after the office party at other venues and were outside the scope of his employment. This latter factor is one which in other cases has been decided differently.

Ultimate responsibility for work functions rests with employers

The issue of employer responsibility is highlighted in a large number of cases in which employees have successfully obtained compensation for injuries sustained or for wrongs (such as sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination) occurring at Christmas parties and work functions which got out of hand.

A drunken bunch of middle managers and junior staff is a volatile mix. The managers still have a position of power over the junior staff and inhibitions are down. Sexual harassment or even sexual assault can occur and employers can become liable.

So, what is an employer to do? Christmas parties and work functions are undoubtedly an important part of Australian business culture and can be fantastic events to say thank you to staff, raise morale and promote camaraderie among workers.

Employers can adopt a few simple strategies to help stay out of trouble and out of court.

Workplace policies setting out standards of acceptable behaviour

Have a clear written policy about what you consider to be acceptable behavior and provide appropriate warnings about discipline and termination for breach of the policy.

The policy should make it clear that the rules of behavior in the office apply equally to events organised by the company that are held outside the premises – be it a pub, club, park or sports ground. All the rules related to bullying, harassment, discrimination, inappropriate comments and sexual behavior still apply.

It should also be made clear to staff that a work function is not the time to "have a big night" and that obvious intoxication will result in them being asked to leave the function.

Photos taken at Christmas parties and perils of social media

Have a clear social media policy. Your reputation can be severely damaged by inappropriate imagery which is connected to your business being circulated on social media. Some employers have a policy that no images from the party are to be posted online by anyone other than the employer.

Limits on strength and quantity of alcohol served at functions

A basic and obvious rule. Don't serve too much alcohol. It seems to be an Aussie trait that we always make sure there is more than enough grog for a party. But for an office Christmas party you might have light beer, wine and no spirits and plan for the alcohol to run out or for the bar tab to be cut off well prior to closing time.

Another idea is to have a breakfast or lunch function or to invite the families and children of staff along. Such functions rarely end up at that bar in the city at 2 am.

What happens when the employer-controlled party is over

Many incidents occur in a grey zone. After the office party has finished at its venue, the staff and managers will often party on at other venues. This is where intoxication continues and unsavory events can occur. It can be difficult to ascertain when the employer-controlled office party ends.

One approach to this risk is to have a policy that staff are expected to leave the venue for home once the event is over. This direction should particularly be aimed at those in positions of power over junior staff. A sensible tactic is to provide staff with cab vouchers to get home safely.

Another approach to this risk is for an employer to ensure that there is a designated person, probably the boss, who stays completely sober and keeps a watchful eye to take action if there is any unwanted behavior. If staff and managers are going on to other venues to continue their celebrations, a good plan is to have the sober boss accompany the staff to these venues.

How should employers respond to unacceptable behavior at Christmas parties?

So the party is over and there is a problem. An employee's behavior was unacceptable. An important step is to take action very promptly. Leaving it to mid-January to start an investigation or take action is often too late and lacks the procedural fairness required to be given to an employee.

You will need to interview those involved in the incident. Take notes. You will then need to put the allegations to the employee. Take notes. Make a decision and put your reasoning in writing very carefully.

You will appreciate that the time and stress of an investigation is very detrimental to an employer, so prevention is always better than cure.

Changing standards of what constitutes acceptable behaviour

A local legend is the story of a bloke in the 1970s and 80s who at the office Christmas party, every single year, would drink 100 KBs, get obnoxious, try to fight co-workers, tell the boss in a long tirade what he really thought of him and then would tell the boss to get ****ed and resign in spectacular fashion. He would return to work on Monday sheepishly, cap in hand, to get his job back each year.

Times have changed and such behaviour would certainly not be tolerated today.

Nathan Luke
Employment law
Stacks Law Firm

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

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

Nathan Luke
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”

Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
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
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (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

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’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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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

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

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