Employers’ Obligations to Workplace Wellbeing: Christmas Edition | Employment Law Update
Christmas can provide great opportunities for employers to lessening stress in the workplace and show appreciation for their employees. However, the festive season can also present many legal challenges for employers, such as Christmas parties and annual leave. It is critical that employers take precautions to prevent being held liable under employment law legislation for Christmas-related festivities in the office. Here is our list of practical tips for dealing with workplace issues this silly season:
Workplace functions are subject to the same employer obligations that would usually apply in the regular work environment, regardless of the venue or time. Employers can be held responsible for their employee’s actions in relation to sexual harassment and discrimination which occurred ‘in the course of employment’. Furthermore, if employees are injured at functions which occur in the ‘course of employment’, they could make a workers compensation claim against their employer.
Tip: We recommend reminding employees that workplace policies apply at these functions and ensuring that responsible service of alcohol is taken into account.
Christmas Party Promises
Promises made at Christmas parties may be legally enforceable, including the promise of a pay rise or job promotions. In the UK case of Judge v Crown Leisure Ltd  IRLR 823, the court held that a ‘promise’ of a pay increase made at a Christmas party was not intended to create a legally binding obligation, and there was no breach of contract when the employer later changed his mind. It is important to note that this decision is highly dependent on the facts surrounding the event.
Tip: Employers should advise managers not to discuss career potential or remuneration with employees at the company Christmas party.
After the Christmas Party
Under Australian OH&S legislation, businesses are legally obliged to provide safe work premises and implement appropriate measures for potential risks. Employers should be aware of this obligation to employees who are required to work the day after the Christmas party, particularly employees who drive or operate machinery.
Tip: Employers should tell all employees of their expectations that employees reporting for work the day after the Christmas party are not to be under the influence of alcohol.
Many businesses, particularly in the retail industry, implement a blackout period which prevents employees from taking annual leave during the busy Christmas period. When implementing a blackout period, we recommend that businesses do so through a formal leave policy, employment contract or staff memo which identifies how leave should be applied for and what blackout period exists.
Tip: If an employee requests leave during the blackout period, it is important to carefully assess the reason for the request. In some cases, a failure to grant annual leave without proper reason may create the risk of legal action under the Fair Work Act.
Decorating the office
It is important to ensure that employers follow OH&S obligations and provide a safe place of work for employees when decorating the office. Employers should take common sense precautions when it comes to decking the halls during the festive season.
Tip: Provide staff with suitable step ladders to put up decorations, make sure Christmas trees aren’t blocking fire exists, and check Christmas lights for defects.