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How to Enjoy the Spirit of the Season Without the Legal Hangover

Office Christmas party, workplace harassment, workers compensation, company charityEditors Note: This is a guest post written by Edward Mallett, Managing Director of Employsure. His opinions are his own.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, which usually means a raft of Christmas parties, including the annual work event.

Tradition holds that this is a boozy affair, which normally results in at least one member of staff becoming the brunt of jokes over the coming year. Office romances are not uncommon either. Sometimes fleeting, but always making for good office gossip in the months after. What would the office joker have to say without this fodder?

This is a tradition under fire though. Businesses are increasingly recognising that what was once “a bit of fun” can result in multi-million dollar law suits. Just ask David Jones – both of the occasions on which it was alleged that Mark McInnes had harassed his fellow staff member were off-site staff functions.

So, what are the risks? There are the obvious ones. The lewd or suggestive comment that is not received well or the wandering eyes and hands of colleagues under the influence of alcohol. What might result in a snarl or a slap across the face outside work, can constitute harassment in a working environment.

There are also more technical risks. Staff are still at work at a company funded Christmas party that they are required to attend, even if it is after hours, so employers run the risk of worker’s compensation claims if injuries are the result of high jinks.

Some modern awards also require transport home to be funded after certain times in the evening. So businesses might inadvertently open themselves up to some significant costs if staff are entitled to funded trips home all over the place.

These risks can be protected against by checking the relevant award and having solid policies on behaviour at work, including discrimination and harassment. But, realistically, is the office joker really going to change their behaviour after a few beers on the basis of what is said in an employee handbook?

Better options for the risk averse include looking at less booze fuelled activities. Maybe supporting a community project for a day or putting the cost of a party to gifts to staff. You could select a charity to give the money to instead, chosen by the staff, or look at giving additional paid leave during any Christmas shut down as a gift.

One of these options could serve the purpose of bringing about some decent camaraderie and spirit in the season of good will without the legal hangover.

For those that want to stick with tradition, just be prepared to add the cost of a claim to your bar tab.

Edward Mallett is a specialist employment law barrister, and Managing Director of Employsure. Employsure is a total risk management solution for employers, protecting them against workplace relations issues such as unfair dismissal, discrimination, breach of contract and harassment in the workplace – all for a fixed annual fee. Follow them on twitter.