Business parties and functions, while joyous and celebratory, remain an extension of the workplace. And with it, the same responsibilities on employers to ensure the safety of everyone present.
“Many owner-managers don’t realise, but a lot of the legislation which they have to adhere to during the working day applies just as equally to Christmas parties, and ignoring it could lead to costly and time-consuming legal issues,” explained Jessica Lestrange, a senior employment relations adviser at Employsure.
“If the work Christmas party is organised and paid for by the employer, the obligations generally remain the same as though it was in the workplace. Employers are therefore advised to clearly outline what is inappropriate behaviour and what the repercussions can be if misconduct takes place.”
According to Ms Lestrange, the most common problems associated with workplace Christmas parties are (in no particular order):
- Sexual harassment
- Safe travel from the function
- Reputational damage
Another major issue comes down not to the behaviour of people, but the associated costs of such functions and their treatment for tax purposes.
Drinks often flow freely with cheers and laughter at Christmas parties, but it can be all too easy for someone to drink too much and become problematic for themselves and others.
The Australian Institute of Criminology noted that “there is a relationship between seasonal changes, calendar events and major sporting events and the rate of reported incidents of violence, which can in part be explained by the increased level of alcohol consumed on these days.”
Antisocial behaviour can be much more common where intoxication is present, including sexual harassment, assault, discrimination or other conduct deemed to be offensive.
In the 2015-16 financial year (the latest for which statistics are available), Crime Statistics Australia found that of all physical assaults, 3 per cent were from a colleague or fellow school student, and a further 6 per cent were from someone else with whom the victim had a professional relationship.
(This percentage was, however, tied with a neighbour as the least common relationship between a victim of physical assault and the perpetrator – perhaps because of the stringent rules and planning involved in a workplace context. The majority of assaults [37 per cent] were caused by a stranger, while 18 per cent were from an intimate partner, particularly for female victims).
Also remember that the sale or provision of alcohol to minors (those aged under 18 years) is illegal, so if you have young staff, cadets or interns attending, you may want to consider an unlicensed venue or withholding the supply of alcohol.
Ms Lestrange advised employers to ensure that alcohol is served in a responsible manner and that both food and water are freely available.
“You might also consider an early cut-off time for the service of alcohol,” she said.
As the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) recently revealed, sexual harassment is a common and increasing problem in our workplaces – with both men and women falling victim to unwanted advances, innuendo and other forms of inappropriate behaviour.
Again, excessive alcohol consumption can fuel this type of unwanted behaviour at work parties.
Ms Lestrange noted that the AHRC has said the definition of workplace has broadened drastically, and with it exactly what constitutes workplace sexual harassment.
Safe travel from the function
Getting to a function may be fairly straightforward – particularly if it is held on company premises.
But Ms Lestrange said that problems often arrive when it comes time for people to head home after the party.
She said that the potential consequences for employers should not be underestimated, given the potential liability under workers’ compensation provisions.
“If someone gets too intoxicated, send them home safely straight away. Don’t let them get behind the wheel,” she said.
Taxis are one means of getting people safely door to door. Alternatively, buses can be chartered to take people back from a remote venue, or overnight accommodation can be booked in advance to remove the need for people to travel late at night after a few drinks.
Some behaviours may not be criminal, but overzealousness in celebrating the end of the year can still cause serious reputational damage – both to the individual and to the business.
“Imagine the difficulty a boss would have managing their team if they drunkenly share inappropriate information about their love life,” said Ms Lestrange.
Other actions, such as boisterous boogeying on the dance floor or embarrassing solo attempts at karaoke, can cause clients, colleagues, employees and others to think less of the party animal, either at the event itself or in hindsight.
Ms Lestrange suggested employers remind their teams, and take on board themselves, a simple reminder in the lead-up to the event.
“Don’t kill the fun – remind employees it is an enjoyable celebration and that employees who do not adhere to the policy or code of conduct, spoil the party for everyone,” she said.
Fringe benefits tax failures
As well as HR issues, there are also tax issues associated with workplace functions, including Christmas parties and gifts to clients and/or staff.
As My Business recently revealed, the calculation of Fringe Benefits Tax (FBT) liabilities is no easy feat.
This is where it can be useful to speak with an accountant or tax professional, rather than attempting to navigate the minefield solo.
Everyone should have fun
Fundamentally, the work Christmas party is meant to be an enjoyable celebration for all – and that includes the owners and managers of a business.
While there are regulatory obligations to abide by, this is the same with every aspect of operating a business.
Employers, too, should take the opportunity to relax, celebrate their achievements over the past year and have a good time with the people who help make their business happen!