The 2012 legal guide to Christmas parties – the story you need to send round the office today

It happens every year: Someone embarrasses themselves and others at the work Christmas party.

In many ways it’s unavoidable, but legal experts are now saying preparing yourself for the silly season is more important than ever.

One of the major catalysts for the push is the growth of social media. Everything you say and do can be instantly published online, and it could only take a few hours for an embarrassing or offensive photo to be spread not only across social networks, but the entire breadth of the internet.

Legal expert and industrial relations lawyer Peter Vitale says it’s time for businesses to lay down some ground rules about how they go about their Christmas parties, warning businesses that warning needs to occur as soon as possible.

“Everyone needs to exercise discretion,” he says. “And the business needs to lay down some warnings.”

Here are the five main areas you need to address for your Christmas parties this year:

1. The party is the same as the workplace

Some employees might get the idea that because they’re off-site, anything goes. Not so. As Vitale says, the official work function still operates as the company for all legal purposes.

“That means all of the company’s policies like health and safety, and anti-discrimination, continue to apply,” he says.

“It needs to be made clear that anybody who is in breach of those policies will be treated as if they’d breached them at work.”

The warning follows a number of cases where judges have ruled that even though employees can be outside of an official workplace, any gathering designated as a work function carries the same responsibilities for any employer

2. A warning needs to be made

Of course, employees won’t know anything about that unless the business owner or manage tells them. Vitale says it’s crucial this occurs.

“It doesn’t need to be in a stern tone, and there’s no harm in an email either, but there just needs to be something circulating around to remind everyone of their obligations.”

3. Social media

This is the big one. Some staff may use Twitter and post on Facebook during or after the Christmas party. It’s something you should just expect. But there’s a danger here, as an offensive or inappropriate social media post could go viral and leave your business in hot water.

At the same time, posts could constitute bullying or harassment if a particular staff member is targeted in an offensive post.

Vitale says you need to warn employees about this, especially due to the fact employment can be affected by social media posts, as referenced in this Linfox case last year. What staff post can come back to bite them.

“If people want to take photos and post them, that’s obviously fine, but they need to check with the people in the photos that they’re okay with it.”

“Again, this needs to be intertwined with employees complying with anti-bullying policies and so on.”

Vitale says it may be worth warning employees to hold off on posting photos until the morning after the party, just in case.

4. Getting to and from…

Vitale says business owners need to make sure staff have a way of getting to and from the Christmas party, even if that means organising taxis. Where alcohol is served, he says, responsible transportation is needed.

5. Alcohol

And speaking of alcohol, Vitale says businesses need to ensure responsible service of alcohol laws are complied with.

“The employer should be conscious of serving alcohol where people have clearly had enough,” he says, also warning that non-drinkers need to be catered for. “That’s just practical, to make sure there are enough beverages for non-drinkers.”

In the final wash-up, Vitale says, it’s pretty simple to have a good time at the Christmas function: “Overall, people just need to exercise discretion.”


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