Every year the festive season brings a spike in claims against employers and employees, with claims around health and safety, bullying, sexual harassment, inappropriate behaviour and more.

How can employers minimise their risks and avoid the festive season becoming the silly season?

Most claims arise from work social functions, including Christmas parties, and often have far-reaching consequences. Claims often take many months to resolve, with a great deal of stress experienced from all sides. People might lose their jobs, and employers may take a significant financial or reputational hit.

First step – policies

Proper policies on work-related social activities are most critical and must be in place. Policies are most effective when using examples of inappropriate behaviour.

Policies need to be known and understood throughout the organisation; there’s no point in having them at the bottom of a drawer somewhere. Workplace behaviour training in conjunction with the policies is an important step to take and can be conducted in person or online, via intranet, webinars and so on.

Good policies will include clear complaint handling procedures. Experience shows that when staff know how to make a complaint they are more likely to make it earlier, resulting in swift action, rather than letting the issue fester and become worse.

Organisations which have clear policies and staff training on appropriate workplace behaviour will experience fewer incidents and will be better placed to handle incidents if they arise.

Christmas functions – ensure reasonable steps are taken

Employers can significantly protect themselves by taking “reasonable steps” to ensure a safe workplace has been provided during work functions.

While the term “reasonable steps” seems broad, there are some key things to focus on:

  • Implementing, and training staff on, policies and procedures for work-related social activities. Policies and procedures need to be known and understood throughout the organisation and should include clear complaint handling procedures so that staff know how to make a complaint and how it will be dealt with.
  • Provide food at all staff social functions. Unfortunately, many organisations fail to provide enough food at work functions while serving alcohol – if inappropriate drunken behaviour ensues, it’s difficult to deny that you fuelled the behaviour by providing the conditions for drunkenness. Ensure there is enough food.
  • If serving alcohol at work functions, also provide low alcohol and alcohol-free options.
  • Consider nominating a person or people who will not drink at a work function and will keep an eye on things.
  • Pick an appropriate venue. Try and avoid venues known for excessive alcohol service and consumption and make sure the venue is in a safe location.
  • Ensure a reasonable finishing time for the work function. An employer-organised work function should be well finished by midnight.
  • Help staff get home safely from a work function. This may involve many things like cab vouchers or providing cars or a bus to drop people home.