Socialising At Work – Tips To Mitigate Legal Risk

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Home > Blog > Socialising At Work – Tips To Mitigate Legal Risk

With the silly season drawing near, social and work lives can blend as end-of-year work celebrations crop up in the weeks preceding Christmas. While these events are usually a time for thanking staff for their hard work and allowing them to let their hair down after a busy year when alcohol begins to flow people’s behaviour can change for the worse. Unfortunately, this can lead to injured employees or third parties, damaged property and allegations of bullying and sexual harassment, all of which may need to be dealt with by the employer.

Although incidents of this nature are not guaranteed at social events, they are more likely to occur without some mitigating practices in place. Here are our recommendations for mitigating legal risks at your work social events.

How can an employee’s conduct be related to their employer?

If a legal issue arises out of a work social event, the employee’s conduct will need to be examined in the context of the employer’s role in endorsing the employee’s behaviour, whether or not it did so inadvertently.

If it is possible to make a link between the employee’s conduct and the employer’s actions leading up to the incident, employers can be affected in the following ways:

  • the employee may seek compensation for their injuries (particularly if the employee can argue that the injury arose in the course of their employment);
  • a third party may seek compensation for injuries or damage to their property caused by the employee; or
  • another employee may bring a claim of bullying and/or sexual harassment against another employee.

Workplace events such as Christmas parties which are organised by the employer can be viewed as an extension of the employee’s employment. As such, if an incident occurs at the event, such as an injury, bullying, sexual harassment or other unlawful behaviour, there can be consequences of liability for the employer.

What can employers do to mitigate legal risks before a social event?

Alcohol consumption can be linked to most of the poor conduct occurring at work social events. It is, therefore, essential to take the following steps to mitigate the risk of an incident occurring and to put distance between the organisation and any poor conduct that may occur.

Remind employees of the behaviour expected of them prior to each event

Employers must ensure they adopt strong policies which clearly outline the type of conduct expected of employees, while also spelling out how the employer will respond to misconduct.

Prior to the event commencing, employers should remind employees in no uncertain terms that inappropriate conduct will not be tolerated and that the same expectations placed upon employees in the workplace will exist at the function. It can be helpful to recirculate relevant policies, including the bullying and harassment policy.

Ensure non-alcoholic drinks are available

With the number of people consuming alcohol on the decline, a selection of non-alcoholic drinks will be welcomed at your event. If the non-alcoholic options are enticing enough they can limit the amount of alcohol consumed by those who are also drinking alcohol or perhaps even convince people to skip the alcohol altogether at this particular event.

In addition, where possible, the event should offer alternative activities to drinking, such as games or entertainment.

Limit the consumption of alcohol

As the host of the party, the employer can limit access to alcohol either by asking the venue to cut off the tab at a certain time or dollar value or if the event is held on-site, the employer can limit the amount of alcohol available so employees are then encouraged to end the function, leave the premises and carry on at a non-work-endorsed event. Wait and bar staff should also practice Responsible Service Alcohol.

Ensure each event has one appointed sober person

It is prudent to ensure there is at least one person at the event who is responsible for implementing the mitigating practices. It is helpful if the appointed sober person is in either a management and/or human resources position so that any decisions which need to be made can be made on the spot. If it is not possible to appoint a sober person who is in one of these teams or positions then another delegate should be appointed and given authority to make decisions and/or given the direct contact details of someone who can.

If inappropriate conduct occurs the appointed person should address the behaviour in an appropriate way as soon as possible, such as by cutting off alcohol, helping the intoxicated person find a way home or by giving them a warning if their behaviour is on the borderline and seems like it could escalate into unlawful conduct.

Stick to the advertised finishing time

If your invitation says the party ends at 10.00 pm then it should end on time, with the service of alcohol ceasing beforehand. Non-alcoholic drinks, including plenty of water, should be offered and staff should be briefed to wrap up the festivities when the party is due to end.

Once the party has officially ended, the employer (or its senior representatives) should refrain from joining employees if they choose to continue on elsewhere. This can be seen to be encouraging a continuation of the work event, which could invite unwelcome liability should something go wrong.