Christmas parties are a great time for businesses to celebrate the achievements of another year. They also pose a significant risk of legal problems, harassment claims and both HR and WHS compliance issues. So, before the celebrations begin, it is crucial employers ensure policies that increase awareness and prevent harassment, particularly sexual harassment, are implemented.

Anything can happen at these celebrations and, sadly, it too often does. Secret Santa gifts, humorous staff awards, speeches, and skits are all dangerous areas with the potential for racial or sexual discrimination and harassment.

The prevention of workplace harassment is high on the agenda of both the Fair Work Commission and health and safety regulators. Two recent cases highlight that the courts are prepared to award significant damages against those who have been found to have engaged in unlawful harassment and fine employers who have not taken all practicable steps to prevent harassment in their businesses.

Recently, a Sydney jewellery business has been ordered to pay a record of almost $270,000 in damages to a female employee for sexual harassment and victimisation. In Victoria a hospitality business was recently fined $290,000 in relation to sexual harassment in the workplace, marking the state’s first conviction under workplace health and safety laws. The Director was personally fined $40,000 and found to have failed to maintain a workplace that was safe and without risk to the health of workers.

To protect your employees and your business you need to set expectations now by:

  1. Ensure both HR and WHS policies relating to harassment are in place and make these policies an important part of induction training.
  2. Send a memo to all staff in the weeks leading up to the event reminding them of the policies or make it a key agenda item in team meetings. Be clear about what behaviours will and will not be tolerated.
  3. Consider training in the weeks leading up to Christmas on what constitutes sexual harassment.
  4. Emphasise the responsible consumption of alcohol.

Alcohol can lessen or remove one’s inhibitions. It is an employer’s responsibility to take reasonable steps to prevent harassment from occurring at the Christmas party and on the journey home. Of course, if an employee chooses to breach the standards and policies put in place, employers have the right to follow disciplinary processes including, where appropriate the termination of employment.

Clear and comprehensive HR policies are essential for a positive work environment. Consider policies on drug and alcohol, performance, disciplinary processes, grievance procedures, duty of care, social media, anti-discrimination, bullying and harassment, code of conduct and privacy.

When serving alcohol at work functions, be aware of legal and ethical considerations:

  1. Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA)
  2. Management Liability and Duty of Care
  3. Harassment and Misconduct
  4. Designated Drivers or Transportation
  5. Insurance Coverage
  6. Clear Policies
  7. Optional Attendance
  8. Ramifications for Misconduct

Prevention is always the best strategy.

If you need assistance understanding your HR and WHS responsibilities, Business 360 is here to assist. Call us on 1300 287 360 or email If you prefer a confidential discussion with one of our directors, scan or click below to book a time to discuss your needs.

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