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The race that stops a nation’s businesses

The Melbourne Cup 2019

Employers are being urged to brace themselves for the annual disruptions from Melbourne Cup festivities, with a warning about responsible service of alcohol, personal objections and the prospect of “sickies”.

The Melbourne Cup race is held on the first Tuesday of each November, and is commonly known as “the race that stops a nation”.

Yet, according to workplace law advisers Employsure, the annual celebration creates a number of challenges for employers, with potential lost productivity and safety implications.

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Senior adviser Isabella Zamorano noted that the day is only a public holiday in parts of Victoria, meaning it is a normal business day across the rest of the country.

And while many do hold celebrations and events to mark the occasion, there are two sides to a day-time event such as this.

Team bonding

On the plus side, Ms Zamorano said holding a Melbourne Cup event can be a good team-bonding experience, particularly as events held after-hours can be difficult for some people to attend.

“By allowing employees time away from work to attend events like a Melbourne Cup lunch, teams will benefit from bonding time together outside work, getting to know each other in a more casual environment,” she said.

“Social events can encourage staff to stay in their jobs longer.

“We know that by offering additional benefits such as time off work for events, your employees might speak more favourably about working at your business to others, thus providing positive exposure for your business.”

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Productivity hit

The flip side, of course, is that business productivity in the short term can take a hit.

It may be worthwhile to investigate beforehand whether clients are also celebrating the cup or continuing to work as usual, in order to have a clearer picture of what, if any, disruption hosting an event may have.

Another aspect around productivity loss comes from when any workplace festivities start and — crucially — when they end.

Ms Zamorano suggested that Melbourne Cup lunches or afternoon drinks can easily drag on to become after-work drinks, and as such, it is important for employers to put the foot down prior about when the function starts and ends.

“Explicitly detail what times and where staff are expected to be. For example, ‘at 3.30 pm, work resumes’ or ‘staff may leave early after the race, but the work day ends when staff leave the office’,” she said.

“The reason this is important is because events that occur outside the work function can still be an employer’s responsibility, such as workplace injuries, harassment claims and even criminal offences.”

Safety and responsible drinking

As previously noted, workplace health and safety provisions will continue to apply, and the flow of champagne at Melbourne Cup luncheons does nothing to change these obligations.

As such, Ms Zamorano said it is important that alcohol policies are set out and clearly communicated with employees, and a gentle reminder on the day can be useful.

“Employers should be clear and transparent about their drug and alcohol policies, setting out standards and expectations before, during and after these events as well as being clear on the start and finish times of any employer-run events,” she said.

“This will create a defined line as to when the event finished and therefore impact on the employer’s responsibilities and obligations.”

Employee sickies, taking leave

According to Ms Zamorano, employers should also be aware of before the big day is the possibility of staff absences.

She said that some workers may be inclined to “chuck a sickie” on the day — or a recovery day on Wednesday.

Alternatively, employees may look to make something of a four-day weekend by calling in sick on the Monday and then partaking in work festivities on Cup day.

“The most important aspect of managing employee absences on or after Cup day is ensuring that the rules for sick days or expectations for Cup day are understood from the outset,” she advised.

“Ensure clear policies are in place upfront and that these are communicated to staff — including those relating to work on public holidays, notice of sick leave absences and the evidence that is required to support such absences.

“Inform staff in advance of the sick leave policy, including the requirement that they provide a medical certificate as evidence in relation to any absences on Cup Day or the following day.”

Cultural, ethical and personal objections

A less obvious consideration for employers relates to office sweeps and betting, which Ms Zamorano said can be a sensitive subject for some people.

It could be that an individual has a gambling problem, or that their cultural or religious beliefs do not condone the practice.

The same could also be said of people who object to the notion of horse racing on animal welfare grounds.

“You cannot force employees to participate in social festivities, nor would that be an enjoyable experience for those involved,” she said.

“Many businesses host betting sweeps as part of Melbourne Cup celebrations, and a number of people who don’t normally gamble will participate on the day. However, employers should be mindful that some people may have genuine objections to gambling, horse racing or alcohol-related events.”

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