Office Christmas parties and other work-related celebrations are extensions of the workplace, Ai Group legal and workplace specialists have reminded employers. 

This means employers remain responsible for WHS issues at such functions, even if they are held offsite. 

Employers’ obligations include ensuring COVID-19 restrictions and provisions are adhered to, Ai Group Workplace Lawyers Legal Practitioner Director Daniel Murray told those attending our webinar, A very COVID Christmas: the how-to of Christmas parties in a pandemic, yesterday. 

“If it’s a work-related function, whether it’s on your premises or not, you have a duty of care with regard to the safety of employees and others,” Mr Murray said. 

“You can’t simply abrogate the responsibility and say ‘it’s not our problem, it’s the restaurant’s’.” 

Creating and documenting risk assessments for each function, preparing safety plans and documenting how risks are managed are all essential steps, Mr Murray said. 

“In terms of the details of the planning, there are a number of things that you need to look at, and this is state-specific,” he added.  

“There are detailed provisions in each of the states and territories which relate to venues and things like density of persons on the venue site.  

“Social gathering restrictions may include things like whether people are vaccinated or not. For example, in NSW, Victoria and Queensland, the question of who is vaccinated or not is a live one because it affects who can attend and how many can attend. 

“Meanwhile, there are general restrictions in place in the ACT, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.” 

Employers must ensure that chosen venues have COVID safety plans. 

“If your function is offsite, you need to be upfront with the venue in terms of communicating with them about your expectations and making sure they understand their obligations,” Mr Murray said. 

Ensure:  

  • the venue can provide a safe place with appropriate systems to comply with the obligations that they — and you — have to those who are attending 
  • you look at the COVID safe plans of each venue and their general standards regarding factors such as cleaning and sanitisation and sufficient space for social distancing. 

“Even if it was not mandatory, it’s still something that ought to be done as part of your obligations under WHS law, to document how you will manage the risks that people might face at that function,” Mr Murray said. 

“It’s also important that you’re very clear with your employees about the way they themselves must apply the obligations, with regards to things like face masks and QR codes.”  

Ai Group Workplace Relations Adviser and Lawyer Katie Hossain says it is important to remember that work-related and work-arranged or endorsed functions are an extension of the workplace. 

“It doesn’t matter if a function is off or on site, within or outside of working hours or the fact the event is a celebration and people aren’t performing their ordinary duties, employers still have a responsibility to ensure they give proper consideration to what usually happens at work functions and end-of-year parties and afterparties to proactively prepare for that, including the aftermath,” Ms Hossain said. 

“In addition to the elevated WHS considerations including COVID-19 restrictions and parameters, there are the traditional conduct and behavioral matters that are equally important to give thought to as you start to consider end-of-year celebrations and what they may involve.” 

These include sexual harassment and harassment matters, which are often exacerbated by alcohol in social settings. 

“Sexual harassment and harassment matters fall within the category of WHS concerns, but they are also behavioral and conduct matters that are ordinarily covered by company polices, as are matters that relate to how aggrieved employees can raise concerns and complaints and how conduct issues are addressed as disciplinary issues,” Ms Hossain said. 

“These policies and procedures are very important in the context of these functions. 

 “So, things like the serving of alcohol and people grouped in a social setting might lead to inappropriate behaviors like the use of inappropriate language or physical interactions or injuries. Impaired decision-making is usually associated with excessive alcohol consumption, given its impact on judgement and conduct, generally.  

“With proper planning, employers can mitigate much of the risk. It’s important that employers ensure they do this because it does fall within the ambit of employer responsibility.” 

Employers should take practical steps such as: 

  • serving non-alcoholic beverages 
  • having plenty of food 
  • having a designated responsible person overseeing behaviors and  
  • ensuring employees can safely travel to and from the function. 

Further, businesses should give clear directions in advance of any function about the expectations of behavior, reiterating that it is a work function and the behavior at the function should align with behavioral expectations in the workplace. 

“This includes recirculating policies such as the code of conduct, the disciplinary policy and grievances policies and reminding employees that inappropriate behaviors will be addressed as if they occurred in the actual office or on the worksite,” Ms Hossain said.  

“The benefit of this is two-fold: if it doesn’t serve as a deterrent, then it will certainly be an important segue into addressing inappropriate behavior in a disciplinary setting. 

“If there is an afterparty, whether that's endorsed in any way by the employer, it needs to be made very clear that the behavioral expectations extend to that party and the designated marshal is there to address concerns and oversee behaviours that might need to be called out and acted on.  

“If the party is not being endorsed by the employer, this should be made very clear to employees and that it will be up to individuals to decide if they wish to attend.” 

If end-of-year celebrations are held onsite, the same guidelines apply. 

With regards to online parties, consider how you manage risks such as untoward comments and ensure employees are aware of and understand IT policies and standards of behavior.  

“You need to think about all of those things from a risk-assessment lens and cast the net widely and think what kinds of risks there are in celebrating in each of these ways,” Ms Hossain said.  

 

End-of-Year Celebration Checklist 

  • Determine who will be responsible for decision-making, resourcing and planning for end-of-year functions 
  • Understand relevant COVID-19 restrictions and public health orders in your state or area 
  • Seek employment feedback if possible 
  • Consider interaction between an end-of-year celebration and the organisation’s prevailing COVID-19 safety/WHS plans that have applied to working arrangements so far 
  • Communicate to staff whether, and how, end-of-year celebrations will take place 
  • Consider a WHS risk assessment of the function

 

For more information, check out these great member-only resources: 

Reducing the risks of work-related social-functions checklist

Memo to employees: Reminder of their obligations at work-related functions

 

Wendy Larter

Wendy Larter is the Senior Content Writer at Ai Group. She is a journalist with more than 20 years’ experience as a reporter, features writer, contributor and sub-editor for newspapers and magazines including The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and Metro, News of the World, The Times and Elle in the UK.