How HR really feels about Christmas parties

HRM readers share their thoughts on end of year parties and a legal expert unpacks their Christmas mishaps.

With Christmas on the horizon, companies are preparing to raise their glasses and cheers to the end of another year. But some are already sensing an impending headache – end of year parties are notorious for workplace incidents.

In January, HRMonline asked readers to share their thoughts on their most recent office Christmas party. From the survey came some statistics and more than a few anonymous anecdotes of reportable incidents – some funny, some problematic and many alcohol-fuelled.

I reviewed the submissions and have shared some off-the-cuff thoughts on how these issues should be addressed.

Footloose

Q: While on the dance floor, one staff member’s partner got a little carried away and tore the shirt off another staff member’s partner. In this instance both partners were men, but one was particularly taken aback.

A: That’s a tough one because the partners are attending as guests of the employees. Do you punish an employee for their partner’s behaviour? I think the observers are the ones that would be confronted by it.

If the organisation received any complaints, I would suggest that the employer tell the employee (whose partner did the ripping) that they’re going to send a letter to their partner outlining that this behaviour is inappropriate and that going forward, they won’t be welcome at company functions. That way, any observers who may have been offended, are assured that you’re taking this matter seriously and have cautioned the person in question.

The dock of the bay

Q: While intoxicated, one of our employees jumped off a boat that was anchored in the bay. However, they did not injure themselves or others.

A: If they had injured themselves, or worse, drowned, that would have been catastrophic. As it is, the employee would need to receive a warning, maybe even a final warning. There also needs to be a focus around responsible service of alcohol.

In a 2015 case, an inebriated employee made harassing statements at a staff Christmas party. After the rules of procedural fairness had been adhered to, that employee was terminated – unfairly the Fair Work Commission decided. Something the Commission said, and we should all be mindful of, was that an employer has an obligation of responsible service of alcohol. If you go to an offsite work event and open a tab behind the bar, you might think that the bar is accountable for responsible service of alcohol. It doesn’t work that way; it’s still a work event.

Employers need to be aware they have a duty of care. While it’s important to give employees a warning when they misbehave, the organisation also needs to determine what transpired to get the employee to that stage of intoxication.

Some companies will appoint one person to remain sober and make sure no one else gets too drunk; sort of like a party marshal.

No pun here, just a no

Q: The organiser of the office Christmas party hired a topless barmaid.

A: I’m not easily shocked, but in this era that’s surprising. I’ve heard of strippers at events or people jumping out of cakes at retirement parties, but I haven’t heard anything like this recently – which is good, we’re moving forward (or my clients just aren’t telling me about it anymore). I’m not sure how anyone could think it was okay, and it could easily be construed as sexual harassment.

Whoever organised the barmaid would need to be sanctioned and issue an apology to all staff. Not long ago, something like this might have been dealt with quietly but now more organisations are being transparent and admitting the mistake – that shows a level of growth. Some might not necessarily disagree with the practice on principle, but they can see it’s got liability written all over it.

Survey results

  • 185 HRMonline readers were surveyed
  • The most common number of attendees to a Christmas party was 50-99 people
  • Almost 19 per cent of respondents said an “incident” occured at the party
  • Less than a third of those incidents required an official report
  • An overwhelming majority (80 per cent) enjoyed their organisation’s party
  • 94 per cent think their colleagues enjoyed the party
  • 76 per cent of respondents said they’d attend this year’s party

Aaron Goonrey is a Partner at Lander & Rogers’ Workplace Relations & Safety practice. Aaron can be contacted at [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the December/January 2019 edition of HRM Magazine.


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