By Aaron Dockery
Employee Relations Adviser
With the “silly season” around the corner many employees find themselves looking forward to letting their hair down at the annual Christmas function. Meanwhile management and human resources have the headache of preparing for the event and trying to mitigate the potential risks in the aftermath of such functions. While employee actions, to some extent, are beyond the employer’s control there are legal requirements and obligations imposed on employers when it comes to putting on such events that must be taken into account.
Firstly, employers and employees have a legal duty of care. From the employer’s perspective, this duty requires the employer to take all reasonable steps to provide safe systems of work for staff. This extends to work organised functions. Significant penalties can be imposed for breach of duty of care and as such it is critical that safety be a key driving force in the management of such events. To uphold an employer’s duty of care, some reasonable steps that can be taken might include:
- Educating all staff on the relevant policies prior to the event;
- Brief management on their responsibilities at the event;
- Ensure the venue of your choosing is complying with responsible service of alcohol;
- Non-alcoholic drinks should be provided;
- The amount of alcohol provided should be relative to the amount of food served;
- Appointing a designated supervisor for the event to oversee staff and address unwanted behaviour at the time
- Providing taxi vouchers, shuttle buses or other safe means of transport home;
- Communicate a clear end time to the event;
- Choosing a low risk venue (i.e. not on or near a body of water etc.)
- Undertaking a risk assessment before the event and put mechanisms in place to address any hazards identified.
Thorough policies are the first step to effectively managing employee behaviour and mitigating risk. Setting expectations and clearly communicating those to staff is key to prevention and critical if performance management ensures. Core policies to have in place include (this list is not exhaustive):
- drug and alcohol policy;
- equal opportunity policy (covering off sexual and racial harassment and discrimination);
- workplace bullying policy (or code of conduct covering off on this);
- social media policy (to deal with inappropriate photos and comments being posted on social media in relation to the event).
In each case, the policies should clearly and expressly include consideration of behaviour at work functions. They should state what the employer’s and employees’ responsibilities and expected behavioural standards are and outline the legal framework around which the policy is based. All key terms should be defined and clear guidelines on consequences of policy breach should be included.
Communication and consistent implementation of company policies is also important should termination eventuate and an unfair or unlawful termination claim arise. Many businesses have fallen foul where these steps are missed. Courts and industrial tribunals will always consider whether staff were aware of their obligations under company policies and whether the employer applied and prescribed disciplinary procedure consistently when determining these cases.
The employer’s risk of being held vicariously liable for employee actions at Christmas functions should also be considered. Vicarious liability essentially refers to a situation where an employer is held liable for certain employee behaviour. Discrimination, sexual or racial harassment and/or bullying are all actions that an employer could be found vicariously liable for. In order to avoid vicarious liability, employers should implement the suggestions outlined above under the duty of care considerations.
For more information on how to prepare for the upcoming Christmas function or for advice on managing poor behaviour at such events, contact the CCI HR experts at the Employee Relations Advice Centre on (08) 9365 7660 or email firstname.lastname@example.org