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The work Christmas party. Many of us have a story. We’ve all witnessed karaoke performances by inebriated work colleagues who suddenly discover their star potential. While sometimes embarrassing the next day, these incidents are often harmless and simply serve to provide a few giggles around the water cooler.

But the consequences for inappropriate behaviour at work parties are increasingly becoming more serious. Many employers now approach the office Christmas party with a feeling of trepidation, and with good reason. Some choose to avoid having a party altogether.

The rules that apply in the workplace also apply to work functions, including Christmas parties, even if the function takes place away from the office and outside work hours. This means that policies relating to discrimination, sexual harassment, and OH&S, still apply. Employers can be held liable for the actions of their employees at work functions, and for injuries to employees, including those that happen on the way to and from the function.

While the end-of-year party should indeed be a place to engage in some fun and celebratory socialising with work colleagues, overindulging in alcohol is not uncommon. With alcohol often comes bad behaviour.

Research shows that sexual harassment claims are among the most common post-party complaints. They can include, among other things, unwelcome touching and familiarity, suggestive comments and jokes, inappropriate kris kringle gifts, and invasive personal questions.

The month of December is increasingly a busy one for employment lawyers handling unfair dismissal claims for people who have been sacked due to inappropriate Christmas party behaviour.

From an employment law perspective, there are things that can be done to prevent complaints and potential litigation that might arise from Christmas party shenanigans. Employers have a duty of care to their employees, and as such, they must take reasonable steps to identify and reduce potential risks.

Employers should have up-to-date workplace policies and a clear complaints resolution process. Many companies are now writing a specific code of conduct for work functions, clearly stating that failure to comply with the code can result in an employee losing their job. A simple email reminding staff about appropriate behaviour and responsible alcohol consumption, and attaching the code of conduct document to the party invitation, can be an effective measure.

Making sure there are limits on alcohol, plenty of food and non-alcoholic drink options, and the responsible service of alcohol at the party, is important. A clearly stated finish time is advisable. Organising cab charges or a mini-bus service can prevent drink-driving.

And conducting a risk assessment of the venue before the party can help to identify potential slip and fall hazards.

The overall message? For employers, take precautions. For employees, be festive not foolish.

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