As the end of the year draws near businesses will begin their holiday parties season. The Holiday season is filled with Spring Racing Carnivals, Christmas parties and End of Year parties.
While it can be all fun and games, employers need to ensure that they do not leave themselves liable during the festive season. The annual Christmas party or any social function can very quickly turn from celebration into litigation due to the possibility of harassment claims, problems due to alcohol or drug use and other inappropriate behaviour, not to mention the cost of unauthorised absences as a result of the “morning after”.
Are you aware of your responsibilities as an employer during these workplace events? What about incidences which occur after the party has ended? Can you still be found liable for poor employee behaviour?
Employers can be vicariously liable for acts of harassment, if they have not taken reasonable and practicable steps to prevent it from occurring.
An employer may be vicariously liable for the acts of employees done in the course of their employment irrespective of whether the employer knew or approved of the offending conduct. For example, in one recent case, it was held that the employer’s liability was not confined to the workplace when offensive comments were made to a colleague during post work drinks and at an employee’s leaving party.
Don’t ruin the holiday fun by leaving yourself liable, by following these simple tips you can minimise the risks to your business:
- Make it clear that conduct at any holiday functions will be covered by the employer’s equal opportunity and anti-harassment policies.
- Warn staff that seriously inappropriate behaviour will result in disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.
- Consider excluding any employees who have demonstrated bad behaviour at previous events. However, such a decision needs to be carefully considered and must not be discriminatory in any way.
- Keep in mind the diversity of employees, especially in relation to religious beliefs. Employers need to be sensitive in the naming of their event so that everyone feels welcome – For example, a Christmas party may alienate some staff, a Festive Season or End of Year party may be more inclusive.
- It should also be considered whether a daytime or evening party will be more convenient for attendees. For employees with children, arranging child care may be an issue. A lunch time event may also help limit the consumption of alcohol.
- In the case of lunch time events, be clear as to whether returning to the office is expected.
- Managers should be clearly briefed as to their responsibilities: not only should they be setting a good example by their behaviour; they should also maintain order and ensure that no employee’s behaviour is getting out of hand.
- Ensure that the content of any professional entertainment is appropriate. In one case the employer was held liable for racially offensive remarks made by a visiting comedian in the presence of two waitresses.
- Prevent access of uninvited guests, as an employer could be liable for the acts of third parties e.g. assault or harassment.
- Offer and make available alternatives for employees to travel home (i.e. a designated driver or provided taxi fares or the like). Also be clear on your requirements and expectations regarding appropriate behaviours when drinking alcohol (.i.e. drink driving laws).
By following these easy steps you can ensure the fun continues without worrying about your business!