The onset of legal liability in the New Year, following a mishap at the end of year work party, is an unpleasant reality for employers.

Employers can leave themselves open to this liability because of misunderstandings about the extent of their powers and responsibilities.

The legal reality is that the end of year office function is part of the workplace. As a consequence the employer has legal responsibilities to employees who attend the event. The employer can be held financially liable if those responsibilities are not met. A further consequence is that the employer has the legal standing to regulate employees’ conduct at such events and to sanction employees for disobedience. Many employers fail to recognise this power and this can leave them without effective tools for meeting their legal responsibilities in practice.

What are the responsibilities?

Under the common law employers have a duty to take such steps as are reasonably necessary to protect employees from reasonably foreseeable risks of illness or injury. This duty applies to a situation where one employee is harassed or assaulted by a fellow employee at the party, even though the employer would certainly never have approved of such conduct. Because this is a foreseeable risk the employer needs to exercise its powers in relation to the party in a way that eliminates, or at the very least substantially reduces, the risk.

Apart from the common law, the liability imposed on employers by anti-discrimination and employment statutes in relation to unlawful discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace will also apply. Under these laws the employer is liable for the conduct of one employee towards another at the workplace unless the employer can show that it took all reasonable steps to prevent the conduct.

Addressing the risk

There are five main steps which employers can take in order to appropriately manage the risks posed by end of year parties, having regard to the scope of the responsibilities outlined above:

  • Set clear parameters – the event should have a fixed starting and finishing time. No extensions should be permitted.  Nor should employees be allowed to remain at the premises once the event is over.  A dress code should be established, publicised and enforced.
  • Communicate openly and frankly with staff as to their responsibilities at the party– It is essential that this communication makes clear that the event is connected with work, that standards of behaviour appropriate to the workplace must be maintained, and that the employer will exercise its power to discipline (including dismiss) anyone who infringes.
  • Alcohol issues – Ensure that any alcohol is served by persons who have Responsible Service of Alcohol accreditation, and empower them to deny service in accordance with that training no matter how eminent or insistent the employee happens to be. Ensure that there is a supply of non-alcoholic drinks.  Make sure there is sufficient food.
  • Keep an eye out during the function – Appoint one or two senior staff to be alert to any problems that arise during the function so that these can be brought to the attention of management at the time.
  • Have a plan for getting people home safely – The best way to do this is by taxi vouchers or some similar arrangement.