The recent series of high-profile harassment claims are ringing loud warning bells for Australian businesses in the lead up to the traditional office Christmas party season.
The media coverage surrounding the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Don Burke has pushed sexual harassment firmly in the spotlight.
As employers across Australia make final preparations for their office Christmas parties, the allegations against these high-profile figures is effectively putting everyone on notice. The publicity is also encouraging employees to call out unacceptable behaviour.
While the perpetrators of sexual harassment are the most obvious target for a legal claim, employers could be found liable in cases where an employee is sexually harassed at a work event. In such cases, the Court will often look at what policies and other safeguards (or lack thereof) the employer had in place to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. There is an added element of risk when an employer holds an event for employees to let off steam and throws alcohol into the mix.
Those in charge of planning their office Christmas party are therefore understandably nervous right now and we are already speaking with employers keen to best safeguard their events from any inappropriate behaviour. Employers want to ensure that their employees enjoy themselves at the end-of-year function, but that they do so safely and respectfully.
Recently, we have seen employers taking the step of nominating a staff member as a “wellbeing officer” to ensure that employees do not over-indulge with alcoholic drinks and that employees’ behaviour does not cross the line. This is not about nominating someone to be “the fun police”, but to ensure employees don’t do something that they may later regret, and that they get home safely.
In addition to this, we encourage employers to review their workplace policies prior to their Christmas party and to remind employees of the expectations around their behaviour and treatment of colleagues before the drinks begin to flow. Ultimately, it’s about creating the right culture in your workplace and understanding the same behavioural standards that apply in the office remain in place at work events.