human resources

SmartCompany Christmas party etiquette guide: Here’s how to avoid expensive penalties for staff behaviour

Dan Moss /

Business owners and managers have been warned to police employee behaviour during the often boozy Christmas party period, or risk a possible upheaval in January.

Alternatives to the standard pub Christmas party, such as a picnic, have been suggested as options which limit the risk of harassment or WorkCover claims and are more inclusive for staff from different backgrounds.

The perception at Christmas parties is often one of “what goes on tour, stays on tour,” Workplace Law managing director Athena Koelmeyer told SmartCompany. But she reminds employers that “because it’s a work related venture, all of the usual rules apply”.

Koelmeyer says the Christmas party could be seen as the perfect moment to act on a year-long crush, but if an advance is not reciprocated, or its unwanted, then the employer may have to deal with harassment claims.

“Love will occur in workplaces from time-to-time, but anything that looks a little bit like harassment or some sort of unwelcome advance is going to eventually find the employer in hot water so it’s worth management and the HR team keeping a close eye on anyone who’s looking a bit cornered or a bit desperate and wants to be happily interrupted,” she says.

“A more appropriate course of action would be to ask them out for a coffee at a normal time,” she says.

While sexual harassment was the top concern, injuries ranked second on the risk list of possible dangers for end-of-year parties.

Any staffer who can pull off a double backflip on the dance floor earns office legend status instantly, but Koelmeyer warns bosses that it could, and likely will, end in a WorkCover claim.

Koelmeyer says without the inhibitions of the workplace, staff might see the Christmas party as a time to act on a year-long grudge and start a fight.

“Because it’s a work sponsored and endorsed event, you’re being fed and watered by work, then it’s definitely going to fall within the ambit of a… risk of a worker’s compensation claim,” she says.

Remember, injuries sustained at Christmas parties are treated as if they were at the workplace, so the same rules apply.

Embarrassing dancing, while usually not a cause of physical danger, holds risks to a staffer’s reputation, especially with the ubiquitous smartphone camera within arm’s reach, and should be watched out for by employers.

Koelmeyer says she considers it more of a Career Limiting Move, with the employer looking out for their employees best interests.

The likelihood of the embarrassing video sparking a harassment claim is low, Koelmeyer says, but may end in a claim of workplace bullying.

Making reasonable efforts to get staff home safely should also be considered by bosses.

Koelmeyer recommends bringing a book of Cabcharge passes to ensure safe passage home, as rules differ across states and territories.

“While you may not strictly have a statutory obligation a good employer wouldn’t want to see anything horrible happen to one of your employees after they’ve indulged themselves at your Christmas party,” she says.

Given these risks, Koelmeyer says, holding a picnic seems like a better option, especially since additional faiths and cultures in Australian workplaces has added an extra level of complexity.

“A picnic in the park on a Sunday rather than a boozy cocktail party at a pub in the city would be more inclusive,” she says.

“Just because the Christmas party’s always been at the pub and it’s been that way ever since 1973 doesn’t mean it’s a good idea still.”

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