10 tips to avoid sexual harassment and other legal claims this festive season

05 December 2016

Office Christmas parties and other work related Christmas functions are a great time for celebration.

However they can also be a common cause of sexual harassment claims, bullying claims and other misconduct or inappropriate behaviour by employees. Many of these claims can costs hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and compensation. There can also be a large reputational cost for those involved and for the business.

It is important that employers consider the risks posed by Christmas and end of year functions and how these risks can be minimised by putting in place strategies to manage employee conduct.

Employers need to be aware that they are liable for what goes on at a Christmas party, and even sometimes at “after parties” and similar events. Liability can even extend to situations where the employer has failed to protect its employees from actions of clients and other third parties. The client is not “always right” in this context.

The same rules apply to a Christmas party as when your employees are physically sitting in the office, but after a few drinks, it is all too easy for behavioural standards to change.

Preparation is the key to managing employee behaviour at end of year functions. All employees should be clear about expected behaviours, and managers and supervisors need to set firm boundaries for behaviour at these events and enforce them.

To ensure that your business is protected from legal claims this festive season, the following steps should be taken:

  • Ensure your sexual harassment and bullying policies have been recently reviewed and are up to date;
  • Provide training to employees to enable them to comply with workplace policies and behavioural standards where required;
  • Send a reminder to all employees prior to the Christmas party and other work related Christmas functions with a link to the sexual harassment policy and a clear reminder that behavioural standards continue to apply and expected standards of behaviour for all employees;
  • Avoid officially sanctioning, organising or paying for “after parties”, where there is no control or supervision on what occurs;
  • Have at least one manager or supervisor present who is a designated “key contact” for the function, who is the central contact point for any issue that arises and who is required to supervise employees and their behaviour and who can direct employees to do or not do something as required;
  • Ensure there is responsible service of alcohol and that non-alcoholic drinks are available;
  • Set a reasonable time period for the event with a clear finishing time;
  • Ensure employees have a way to get to and from the event safely;
  • Act immediately during the function if any inappropriate behaviour occurs – many times people witness what goes on and do nothing. ┬áBehaviour also often escalates as the night goes on; and
  • Act promptly to investigate and lawfully act on alleged incidents of unlawful conduct.

If these measures are implemented, employees will still enjoy themselves at functions but the chances of a legal claim against your business will significantly decrease.

It is possible to have a safe Christmas party and an enjoyable celebration, so long as employers take care to avoid the potential risks which may arise.

Tis the season to be very careful if you are holding a Christmas party!

This article was written by Chris Egan, Special Counsel and Mark Howard, Partner.

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