People & Human Resources

Planning a successful Christmas party: Avoid the common pitfalls with these tips

Matthew Elmas /

It may still be too soon to put up a Christmas tree, but the silly season is less than eight weeks away, which means time is running out to plan your work Christmas party.

The work Christmas party done right can be a team building opportunity, or a way to reward staff for a job well done throughout the year.

But handled poorly it can alienate staff, or even land a business on the wrong side of a lawsuit.

Planning the humble office Christmas party is serious business, and those looking to get a great outcome are already thinking carefully about the big day.

Michael Ellis, head of culture for online wine retailer Vinomofo, is one such person.

He tells SmartCompany Vinomofo starts planning its Christmas party months in advance, and this year it plans to deck out its Melbourne-based warehouse, and hire a DJ and bar staff for its end of year bash.

“We try and make it different each time,” he says.

“For us it’s right at the end of the busiest period of the year, so it’s just a chance to celebrate together.”

In previous years Vinomofo ran day-long Christmas events at offsite venues, but opted for its warehouse last Christmas and will do so again this year.

Some businesses have gone all out with end of year parties in recent years. GoDaddy made headlines in 2010 when it hired a ferris wheel, bumper cars and a merry-go-round for staff.

But Ellis believes a more reasonable party can be good for morale, as it takes pressure off the night, while also being good for the bottom line.

That said, plenty can still can go wrong. Christmas parties are often a source of poor workplace behaviour, like the time a drunken worker was fired for allegedly throwing a colleague in a swimming pool, or the mechanic who was dismissed for a drunken outburst at his office party.

Both of those cases ended in unfair dismissal cases before the Fair Work Commission, which were being reported on months later.

So what can you do to ensure your business doesn’t end up embroiled in a Christmas party mess?

Lay down the law

Employers are responsible for the conduct of their employees at work organised Christmas parties, explains Gold Coast-based workplace lawyer Bruce Simmonds.

That means all of the same occupational health and safety and harassment policies that apply to a normal work day are also relevant during any work function, regardless of whether it is a social setting.

“All year long you may have a very good workplace policy with regard to sexual harassment or discrimination, then when it comes to alcohol you’re removing it from a business setting and placing it in a social setting,” he tells SmartCompany.

“Legally, though, you are still at a workplace … [you’re] vicariously liable for the actions of workers.”

Simmonds, director at Parker Simmonds Solicitors, explains he once worked with an employee that had allegedly been assaulted by a co-worker at an office party. The incident ended in a work cover claim and a separate discrimination claim.

His advice is to avoid serving alcohol full stop, but if employers do decide to make booze available, expectations should be clearly communicated ahead of time.

Communicating the start and end time of a work function, as well as what will specifically be undertaken, such as a dinner, is a good way for employers to guard themselves against things getting out of hand, Simmonds says.

David Wurth, owner of Wurth HR, echoes that sentiment. He says when the function finishes, employers should also make sure everyone leaves the designated venue promptly.

“If they want to go carry on somewhere else that’s fine, but don’t endorse that in any way … that signals the end of the company’s responsibility,” he tells SmartCompany.

Call it out

Wurth says it is critical at least one senior manager is present the whole time during a work function, and they don’t consume any alcohol. This will leave them free to address any issues as they arise and take care of problems before they get out of hand.

Ellis agrees; despite Vinomofo being a wine retailer and booze flowing freely at its Christmas parties, he doesn’t partake.

“For me it’s a work night, it’s not my Christmas party. It’s another day where I’m on the job and I’m totally okay with that,” he says.

Ellis advises creating clearly defined roles for staff, and ensuring anyone who needs support at any stage of the day or night knows where to find it.

“Without being the fun police … I’ll always make a point of saying: this isn’t the time and place to make a fool of yourself,” he says.

Consider contingencies

Vinomofo organises company buses to make sure workers get to public transport hubs safely after their party.

Ellis says its important to plan ahead for contingencies, ensuring workers can get home safely, and without incident.

Wurth agrees, saying taxi vouchers or a company Uber account are also good ideas.

It may be an extra cost to the company, but when it comes to the humble office Christmas party, planning ahead and budgeting appropriately can save employers from much bigger headaches down the line.

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Matthew Elmas

Matthew is the news editor at SmartCompany.

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