Planning a work party? Employer liability for Melbourne Cup and Christmas parties

Are you planning a work party to celebrate Melbourne Cup, Christmas or another occasion with your employees? Don’t end up with a legal hangover! A work party can provide great opportunities for relaxation, team bonding and boosting morale. However, there are a number of legal risks and obligations which arise. Employers must be aware of their obligations to their employees and potential liabilities for employee conduct at a workplace function. Regardless of the venue or time, workplace functions are subject to the same employer obligations that would usually apply in the regular work environment. A range of laws apply to workplace functions, including legislation related to workplace safety, liquor, anti-discrimination, bullying, and criminal laws.

In the past, employers have been found to be liable for an employee’s inappropriate conduct or statements that have occurred at a work party. Employers can be held responsible for their employee’s actions in relation to harassment, sexual harassment and discrimination which occurred ‘in the course of employment.’ Workplace functions, such as Melbourne Cup and Christmas parties, will usually be considered to be events which occur ‘in the course of employment.’ Unplanned events, such as drinks after a meeting, could also be considered to be a workplace event in some circumstances. If employees are injured at functions which occur ‘in the course of employment,’ they could make a workers compensation claim against their employer.

How can employers manage risks at a work party?

Employers owe a duty of care to their employees, and must take reasonable steps to identify and reduce any potential risks. The nature of workplace functions and consumption of alcohol heightens the threshold for what is required of employees to take ‘reasonable steps.’ Failing to take reasonable steps to prevent inappropriate conduct at workplace functions can result in significant liability for the employer. Employers can take a range of reasonable steps to reduce risks at workplace functions, including:

  • Remind employees that workplace policies will apply to behaviour at these functions even when they are held off site.
  • Remind employees of the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption and drink driving.
  • Advise employees that workplace policies could apply to both planned and unplanned workplace events.
  • Remind employees that ‘Secret Santa’ gifts must be appropriate. There can be a risk of harassment or discrimination claims if gifts are inappropriate.
  • Ensure that policies related to bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination, work health and safety are up-to-date and accessible. All employees must receive appropriate training regarding these policies.
  • Responsible service of alcohol must also be taken into account to reduce the risks of sexual harassment, bullying and accidents. Ensure that food and non-alcoholic drinks are available. Consider the needs to staff with dietary or cultural requirements.
  • If an employee becomes too intoxicated at a work party, they should be told to stop drinking. If necessary, they should leave the function with safe transport arranged.
  • Ensure that the chosen venue and activities do not present inappropriate risks. Undertake a risk assessment of the venue to identify safety hazards.
  • Set specific start and finish times for workplace functions, and note that parties following after the function are not endorsed by the employer.
  • Ensure that employees are able to get home safely. You could provide taxi vouchers or organise a shuttle bus.
  • Check your employee insurance policy to see if the function is covered.
  • Ensure that workplace policies clearly allow for internal complaints, and properly investigate all complaints.

Unsure whether your business is liable for your employee’s conduct? Need to review your workplace policies? Please contact our Newcastle and Sydney lawyers on (02) 4929 7002 or fill out an enquiry form on our website.