By Courtney West

The holiday season is here, and after the year we’ve had, many Aussie workers can finally start to experience the joy of Christmas – employees will be looking forward to letting their hair down and having some fun! And while it’s been tough for all of us, end-of-year shindigs are still considered formal work functions that require the employer to exercise a duty of care and to manage any associated health and safety risks that may appear.

Okay, before you say anything, I realise that it sounds like I’m taking the fun out of work parties, but I can promise you, I’m not being the Christmas Grinch! Work parties are a great way to show employees that they’re valued and acknowledge their ongoing contributions and achievements. And, to help you plan a fun (and safe) celebration, I’ve put together a list of the dos and don’ts you need to know when it comes to planning and executing a staff Christmas party. So, let’s get into it!

1. Mitigate the risks

Having effective HR policies and procedures is the first step to managing your employees’ behaviour during work functions. Well-written policies and procedures set the ground rules and spell out the company’s expectations on appropriate behaviour, and if there happens to be an incident, your company will be protected – but there is a catch. While it’s all good and well that companies have policies and procedures, they’re pointless if all they do is collect dust. It’s crucial that HR personnel ensure each employee has read and acknowledged the policies – this might sound like an overwhelming task especially during the silly season, but not when you have the right solution in place. This should be done on a regular basis, especially before a work function such as a Christmas party. If this does not occur, then an employee may reasonably argue they weren’t aware of the expectations of them.

enableHR is the people management platform that can digitally disseminate documents to all your employees in the click of a button. Employees can then read and acknowledge the document via the Employee Self-Service portal which is then recorded in each employee’s file and saved securely in the cloud.

2. Workplace liability

It’s recommended that employers encourage their employees to plan their travel arrangements ahead of time; this is particularly important if alcohol is being served at the Christmas party. This recommendation has been made because your business may be liable for any incident that occurs either before or after the party where there’s a sufficient connection to an employee’s ‘work’. It may be even appropriate to consider providing free transportation for employees to and from the event.

Organising fun activities at a party are a great way to bring your people together and encourage team building and bonding, but employers should be wary of planning activities that could increase health and safety risks. These factors must be considered with the utmost importance especially if alcohol is being served, and the impact this may have on an individual’s capacity to safely participate in activities.

3. Manage misconduct fairly and appropriately

Although Christmas parties are a great way for both employers and employees to get involved in the festivities, the case of Keenan v Leighton [2015] FWC 3156 highlights the importance of ensuring that if any misconduct does occur, the response is in line with an employer’s obligations of procedural fairness. In this matter, an employee made remarks to a female colleague at a Christmas party which the Fair Work Commission found to be “of an aggressive, intimidatory and bullying nature”. However, despite this meaning, there was a valid reason for his dismissal, his termination was nonetheless was found to be ‘unjust’ (one of the criteria to find a dismissal unfair) because he wasn’t given sufficient procedural fairness and was treated differently to an employee who had engaged in similar conduct.

To help ensure your event runs smoothly and your company’s policies and procedures are correctly adhered to consider nominating additional supervisors. It’s only natural that tempers may run high at the end of the year, particularly where alcohol is involved, but this doesn’t absolve businesses of their obligations to respond to allegations or complaints in line with their policies, conduct fair investigations (where an investigation is appropriate), and implement any disciplinary action in a procedurally fair manner.

4. Keep it COVID-safe

When planning your next event or Christmas party, you should always keep in mind relevant COVID-19 rules and how they apply. To ensure that the only thing your workplace shares this year is the holiday cheer, businesses are encouraged to implement social distancing measures and to consider how food and drinks can be safely served.

5. Key takeaways

It’s vitally important that employers plan ahead, observe their duty of care, apply procedural fairness, and keep the party COVID-safe. Implementing these safeguards will ensure that your next event is memorable for all the right reasons.

If you have any questions about the information in this article, please contact the Client Success Team – we’re always here to help you.

We believe HR should be simple. Simple enough for you to run your business confidently. If you’d like to see enableHR in action, contact us to learn more about how we can help your business.

Courtney West is a Workplace Relations Advisor and assists a variety of clients via the Telephone Advisory Service. She is currently studying for a Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Arts.