It’s getting to that time of year again when employers hold their annual end of year event. Generally at these events staff get together to eat drink and have a good time.   Remember, the traditional employer organised end of year function is a work event.

All of us have probably heard at least one horror story arising from an end of year function. If not, here are a couple of examples:

  • A boat propeller injured an employee after being pushed off a boat during the work Christmas party. The employer was held liable for the injury.
  • Employees were prosecuted by WorkSafe for breaches of OH&S laws after an employee suffered severe burns at a Christmas party. The employee who suffered burns had his chest sprayed with paint thinner which then caught fire from the flame of an ignited spray can.

So what are the risks?

Case law establishes that the end of year event even if held outside of normal working hours and outside the workplace has sufficient connection to the work that any unlawful behaviour engaged in by employees at these functions can be the subject of a workplace complaint.

Legislation that holds an employer vicariously liable (e.g bullying, discrimination, harassment etc.) will generally extend to a work function. These laws means an employer will, in most cases, be held vicariously liable for the acts and omissions of its employees at a work function unless the employer take reasonable steps to prevent the behaviour/conduct. Further workers compensation liability for injuries sustained at work generally extends to work functions.

These laws may also extend to conduct that occurs after the event.

Pre-Event Preparation

  • Make sure policies are in place, that they are up-to-day, and that all employees have read and are aware of them. Essential policies include:
    • appropriate workplace conduct (Code of Conduct),
    • bullying,
    • harassment, and
    • discrimination;
  • Consider the time of the event, perhaps a lunchtime event is a good choice;
  • Notify all staff by email that the End of Year party is a work event that all employees are required to conduct themselves appropriately and comply with workplace policies and procedures and if they fail to do so they may be subject to disciplinary action, including termination of employment;
  • Ensure the venue is appropriate for the event and that there are no obvious risks;
  • If alcohol is supplied, ensure the venue applies responsible service of alcohol legislation. In McDaid v Future Engineering and Communication Pty Ltd [2016] FWC 343, the Fair Work Commission held that employers must “take steps” to ensure that alcohol is served responsibly;
  • Have a plan for everyone to get home safely. For example, consider providing cab charges;
  • Consider nominating individuals to be the “Sober Bob” for the event. The Fair Work Commission in Keenan v Leighton Boral Amey NSW Pty Ltd [2015] FWC 3156, encouraged employers to appoint a manager to supervise the conduct of work events to avoid mishaps. It is essential that the “Sober Bob” stays sober and is able to monitor and attend to any OH&S issues such as wet floors, broken glass etc…;
  • Notify all staff by email of the start and finish time for the event and the get home safely plan. State in the email that if employees choose to attend another function/venue after the party they do so in their own capacity and the employer takes no responsibility for “partying on”.

At the Event

  • Take appropriate action if inappropriate conduct occurs;
  • Don’t have an endless supply of alcohol;
  • Make sure food is supplied. Ensure you cater for any dietary requirements;
  • Make sure non-alcoholic drinks are available;
  • Make sure no employee who has been drinking drives home.

Taking these steps should help to ensure there are more cheers than fears.

Written by Nicole Dunn