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The end-of-year work party is a great way to unwind with colleagues, celebrate the festive season and wrap up a year of hard work.

But these parties can also be notorious for getting out of hand, with staff taking advantage of the free booze and sometimes behaving inappropriately or even getting injured.

And while your employer has an obligation to provide a safe environment, there can still be consequences for an employee’s bad behaviour.

We’ve all heard stories of things going wrong at the office Christmas party, so what are some things we should be aware of as we head into December?

Here are our tips for employers and employees on how to avoid becoming a cautionary tale this festive season.

For employees

Under the law, a work party is still considered part of the workplace. So, when you’re starting to let your hair down, sipping a glass of bubbles and watching Kevin from Accounting hit the dancefloor, remember the following:

  • When you’re at a work party, you’re still considered to be at work.
  • The same expectations around your behaviour in the office or workplace apply to your behaviour at the party.
  • This applies even if the party is held outside normal work hours and away from your usual workplace.
  • Employers can discipline or potentially dismiss workers who have behaved inappropriately at a work party.

For employers

Just like staff have a responsibility to behave appropriately at a work party, employers have a responsibility to ensure everybody’s safety.

Some steps employers can take to reduce risks at office parties include:

  • Before the party, set clear expectations about what is considered acceptable behaviour and conduct.
  • Circulate any relevant organisational policies and procedures, such as those around sexual harassment, bullying and the use of social media.
  • Ensure alcohol is served responsibly, and there is food, as well as non-alcoholic drinks and plenty of water available.
  • Set clear start and finish times for the party.
  • Make sure that employees have a way to get home safely. If there are no safe and easy public transport options available at the end of the night, employers should consider providing taxi vouchers, private transport or travel reimbursements for staff to get home safely.

What if inappropriate behaviour such as sexual harassment occurs?

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to hear stories of sexual harassment at work Christmas parties.

Sexual harassment can include unwelcome touching, suggestive comments or jokes, intrusive questions about someone’s private life, or sending sexually explicit text messages.

All workplaces should take sexual harassment allegations seriously, and any allegations made during or after the work party should be handled according to the company’s policy. It’s important to note that it is unlawful for there to be any negative consequences to one’s employment for making a complaint.

It’s also important to note that if someone attempts to play down their behaviour by saying they were ‘just joking’ or ‘had too much to drink’, these are not valid excuses for doing the wrong thing.

How serving alcohol responsibility can make or break an unfair dismissal claim

Poor behaviour can certainly get you fired, as it did for Mr Vai in Vai v ALDI Stores. In this case, Mr Vai attended his work Christmas party and got too drunk. The bar staff cut him off, but he ignored the manager’s suggestion to leave the party. In his drunken state, he threw a full glass of beer against a wall, narrowly missing his colleagues.

After being dismissed for his conduct, Mr Vai brought an application in the Fair Work Commission alleging that he had been unfairly dismissed. He was unsuccessful, with the Commission determining that ALDI had taken sufficient steps to manage the function appropriately, including limiting the service of alcohol, speaking to the employee and having managers and security at the venue.

In Keenan v Leighton, it was a similar story with a different outcome. Mr Keenan attended his staff Christmas party, where employees could help themselves to unlimited alcohol. He went on to deploy a range of inappropriate behaviours, including verbally abusing a director and senior staff member and repeatedly asking for a female colleague’s phone number.

When the party had officially finished, Mr Keenan and colleagues continued to another bar, where he made sexually harassing comments to several women he worked with.

He was fired for his conduct, and like Mr Vai, he made a claim to the Fair Work Commission that he was dismissed unfairly. This time, the Fair Work determined that it was unfair dismissal for the following reasons:

  • Mr Keenan’s employer had not put measures in place to control alcohol consumption.
  • Mr Keenan’s behaviour after the party had officially ended could not be used as a reason to dismiss him.

These two cases demonstrate the importance of having the right measures in place for the responsible serving and consumption of alcohol.

Who’s responsible if someone is injured at the party or on the way home?

Employers are responsible for the safety of their workers – and this duty extends to all work-related locations like work Christmas parties.

If someone is injured at the staff party or on their way to or from the function, they may be eligible to apply for workers’ compensation.

A note on social media

What you choose to post on your social media accounts when you’re not at work is entirely up to you. But since a work party still counts as being at work, you must abide by your company’s social media policy.

Simply put, it might be okay to post a nice photo of you with some colleagues, but it’s not okay to share anything that could reflect negatively on any colleagues or your workplace. For example, sharing content that shows yourself or colleagues extremely drunk or behaving poorly.

If your social media posts are deemed inappropriate, this could constitute unlawful behaviour and could lead to disciplinary action.

Eat, drink and be merry… safely

The end-of-year work party should be enjoyed by everyone who attends, and it’s a shame when someone’s poor behaviour can tarnish the night for everyone else.

There can be significant repercussions should something go wrong, which is why it’s important to take any work event seriously. It’s okay to have fun and unwind, but we recommend treating your work end-of-year party just like any other professional event.

With the right planning and setting expectations in advance, everyone can have a good time and return to work on Monday without any worries.

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