Christmas Parties and Employment Law

Public news

The festive season is well and truly upon us, and with it, the joyful celebrations of the annual work Christmas party.

There will no doubt be enthusiasm for such celebrations, yet this keenness brings about the necessity for a timely reminder of the importance for all employees to understand the employment law risks involved. It is critical for every employer to implement measures to minimise and manage risk at employee functions.

What duty of care to employees exists at the work Christmas function?

An employer’s duty of care to its employees at the work Christmas function is the exact same as any other day of work. Despite the location or formality of the event, it should be treated as an extension of the workplace; the employer holds the duty of care to take reasonable measures to ensure the safety of its employees even if at an external location.

What sort of risk could ensure at such a fun celebration?

Christmas functions more often than not include alcohol as employers and employees come together to relax after another successful working year. It is common knowledge that alcohol consumption can significantly affect an individual’s judgement, emotions, speech, motor skills, and reduce their inhibitions. Poor management of such behaviour at a Christmas function could, unfortunately, lead to:

  • Psychological injuries;
  • Physical injuries;
  • Sexual harassment claims; and/or
  • Discrimination claims.

Here are two past instances where work Christmas functions have ended poorly:

1. Damien McDaid v Future Engineering and Communication Pty Ltd [2016] FWC 343

In this case, the employer organised an outside-of-office event, followed by a Christmas party at the office, where there was an unlimited amount of alcohol, and a swimming pool. Mr McDaid became inebriated and was aggressive towards a colleague. He pushed the colleague several times, and eventually pushed them into the pool. Mr McDaid was asked to leave by the General Manager. When he refused, a physical altercation ensued between the pair, who both suffered injuries. The employer terminated Mr McDaid’s employment, and the Fair Work Commission (FWC) held the dismissal of Mr McDaid had engaged in misconduct and his dismissal was valid.

2. Youngblutt v Workers Compensation Regulator [2019] QIRC 100

A policewoman suffered a psychological injury after a colleague at the work Christmas function made crude comments to her. The policewoman also experienced inappropriate touching, advances, and gestures. The conduct occurred at the policewoman’s station party, which was organised by a social club. One of the key questions before the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission (QIRC) was whether the party occurred in the course of the policewoman’s employment. Ultimately, QIRC found that the event did occur in the course of the policewoman’s employment as the police force had given officers the day off and encouraged attendance at the event. The claim for workers’ compensation was ultimately accepted.

What can employers do to minimise and/or manage risk at a work Christmas function?

  • Complete a review of the relevant company policies in advance of the Christmas function (i.e. bullying and harassment, social media and code of conduct).
  • Remind employees of their obligations under the relevant policies in advance of the Christmas function, and ensure that employees are aware that breaches of behavioural standards may constitute misconduct and give rise to disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.
  • Set a clear start and finish time for the function, and ensure that these are adhered to.
  • If the event is to be held externally or a significant distance from the workplace, consider providing transport home from the function by way of taxi or Uber vouchers.
  • Nominate at least one responsible person(s) to oversee the supervision and safety of employees whilst at the function.
  • Ensure there is adequate security, staff, and safety measures are in place at the venue, whether internal or external. This includes ensuring that there are sufficient non-alcoholic options and food.
  • Deal promptly with any complaints or grievances that may arise from the function in accordance with your policies and procedures, and seek advice if you require further assistance.

If you have any specific questions about your upcoming celebrations, please contact our WR team at wr@mtasant.com.au, or call 8291 2000.