If you want to talk about risks at the work Christmas party, just ask disgraced former NSW Labor Leader Luke Foley.
He’s vehemently denied allegations from an ABC journalist that he got “grabby” with her underwear at a Christmas party in 2016. But the scandal has cost him his job while he lawyers up to launch a defamation case against the ABC.
So with all that in the air, it’s almost that time of the year that employees celebrate and many employers dread- the 2018 work Christmas party.
Brisbane lawyer Mark O’Connor says too often the celebrations cross the line of good behaviour and employers can find themselves hit with unexpected WorkCover costs if an employee is injured at the office Christmas party.
Mark O’Connor is reminding employers that workplace laws still apply at functions organised by them, such as Christmas parties or work retreats.
Mark O’Connor, an injury compensation lawyer and a Director with Bennett and Philp Lawyers, says it’s timely to remind employers that they are responsible for their employees’ safety at Christmas parties, whether they are held at the workplace or another venue offsite.
He says employers need to realise that in most circumstances an employment relationship between a worker and an employer would still exist during Christmas parties organised or paid for by the employer, even outside of normal work hours.
“At this time of the year as businesses prepare for their annual Christmas functions it’s important to remember that the rules for being a responsible host also apply to employers who organise or pay for an office Christmas party. If an employee drinks too much during a work function and is injured as a consequence, the employer could be liable.”
Mark also says that employers should also be mindful that with the popularity of camera phones and social media, there’s a growing risk that what happens at the office Christmas party might not stay in the office.
People who use their smartphones to video misbehaviour at the office Christmas party and swap or upload footage to social media sites could find themselves out of a job or even facing legal action from angry colleagues.
Fellow Bennett & Philp Director and compensation lawyer Trent Johnson says employees need to be aware of the potential legal issues relating to Christmas party hijinks broadcast to the world via social media.
“These days people seem to have their mobiles ready to video every incident they see and then upload it to social media platforms. The traditional view that what happens at the work Christmas party stays at the Christmas party can mean little when everyone has a mobile with a camera.”
“The temptation to upload some office party highlights to social media is very real so employers need to have a policy in place to ensure that staff understand that a work- organised and/or funded Christmas event is covered by workplace laws.”
“The general rule is that if the boss is paying for it, then it’s a work event.”
Mark says an employer might be held accountable for uploaded material if an aggrieved employee claims that their employer failed to prevent something that happened at a workplace event from being shown or published, resulting in embarrassment, ridicule or distress.
Meanwhile, Mark adds that if a drunk employee is injured at an office Christmas party, or even after they have left it, a potential compensation claim by the worker could mean the employer being hit with extra WorkCover premiums, as well as the potential risk for a negligence claim.
“Employers and employees should be alive to their responsibilities about Christmas partying. They should be aware that while the office Christmas party is usually great for team morale and bonding, there is also the risk for things to go out of control.”
“Alcohol can change people’s personalities and simmering workplace disputes can spill over into confrontation” he says.
“Staff also need to realise that when the office party is officially over and they continue on to clubs or private parties, the employer is usually no longer legally responsible for their safety,” he says.
Employers are encouraged to implement ground rules before a party, to restricting drinks to a defined period, providing the option of non and low alcoholic drinks, refusing service to intoxicated guests, establishing a formal time for the end of the party, and to be mindful of how people would get home, such as organising public transport or providing taxi vouchers etc to reduce the risks of drink-driving.
“But ultimately there’s a point in the night when people are totally responsible for their own behaviour, whether you are a junior office worker, a management executive or even a prominent political figure,” Mark says.
Individual liability limited by a scheme approved under professional standards legislation (personal injury work exempted).