The festive season should be an enjoyable time of the year but are you aware of your obligation to provide a healthy and safe environment when planning business Christmas party/workplace functions? Don’t be complacent – prepare for when things go wrong…
If a function is organised, promoted and funded by the business, it is more than likely to be considered an extension of the workplace and therefore, your business should ensure it takes all reasonable steps to minimise any risk to the business.
When is the employer liable?
In most legal contexts, an employer function/staff party will be considered as part of the ‘workplace’ and having connection with the employment of employees. As such, all the duties and obligations of the employer that apply in the office, shopfront or yard will continue to apply for the duration of the function or party. In practical terms, this could mean the organisation (or even individual employees of the employer) could be held liable for occupational health and safety breaches for failing to provide a working environment that is safe and without risks to health.
Injuries or illnesses arising out of or in the course of the function may be compensable under statutory workers compensation schemes and inappropriate conduct or comments could lead to harassment or discrimination claims. Additionally, employees must also be aware that they may be disciplined for their actions at the party, as the terms and conditions of their contract and any applicable company policies apply for the duration of the function. The employer’s liability may be limited in some circumstances where the employee has engaged in serious misconduct or for instances that occur after the completion of the organised function. However, such exceptions are assessed on a case-by-case basis. In all circumstances it is clear the employer must be able to demonstrate all reasonable and proportionate steps were taken to educate staff on appropriate standards of behaviour, to provide a safe environment, and eliminate discrimination and sexual harassment.
Some tips to minimise your risk of things going wrong:
- Plan your function – Select a venue wisely and provide all employees with the details of the function, including clearly communicating start and finish times;
- Educate and set the rules – Ensure all employees are aware it is a work function and, as such, that the usual code of conduct and associated policies and standards of behaviour apply. Now is also a good time to review relevant policies and consider training employees in acceptable workplace behaviour. For example, Bullying and Discrimination awareness training for managers and employees;
- Safety – Provide alternative transport options including designated drivers, Ubers and taxi vouchers.
Is the employer liable for the actions of employees at an ‘after party’ event?
Employers may be vicariously liable for the actions of their employees if such actions are in the ‘course of’ or within the ‘scope’ of employment. This will differ on a case by case basis, depending on the factual circumstances of each situation. As discussed above, advising staff of the clear finishing time of the organised function and avoiding sanctioning or funding any post-function activities will assist in reducing such liability.
Does the employer have to provide transport after the function?
Employers have a duty of care to provide a safe workplace environment to all employees. Legislation concerning liability for injuries sustained whilst travelling to or from the workplace (or a workplace function) differs from state to state, but the possibility of providing transport to employees after the event should be considered as part of the planning phase, but is not obligatory.
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