Tis the Sea­son to Avoid Fol­ly: Work­place Christ­mas Par­ties (2023 Edition)

It’s that time of year. The Sil­ly Sea­son’. For many organ­i­sa­tions, the offi­cial employ­er Christ­mas par­ty is imminent.

The start­ing point for office Christ­mas par­ties is that they are an exten­sion of the work­place — employ­ers need to care­ful­ly bal­ance hold­ing and facil­i­tat­ing a fun event with main­tain­ing a safe, respect­ful envi­ron­ment for employees. 

Bal­anc­ing the var­i­ous risk fac­tors can be an act wor­thy of the cir­cus enter­tain­ers who are a fix­ture at some high-end cor­po­rate par­ties. A few sen­si­ble steps can, how­ev­er, help man­age the risks of Sil­ly Sea­son’ events. 

Pri­or to the party

Exam­ine the venue: There are var­i­ous fac­tors to con­sid­er in deter­min­ing the suit­abil­i­ty of a pro­posed venue.

First is the loca­tion of the venue. Be wary of venues in inac­ces­si­ble, iso­lat­ed or poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous loca­tions. There might be a price to be paid for the ambi­ence or nov­el­ty val­ue such venues might lend to an event. Con­sid­er the addi­tion­al risks asso­ci­at­ed with such venues and how employ­ees will get home after the event.

Have a look at the lay­out of the venue. A venue with many nooks and cran­nies might be more dif­fi­cult to effec­tive­ly mon­i­tor than one with a wide, open space.

Also, ask the venue for its pol­i­cy on obtain­ing sur­veil­lance footage in case it’s need­ed for an inves­ti­ga­tion after the func­tion. (Hope­ful­ly it won’t!)

Respon­si­ble ser­vice of alco­hol: Check that the venue has adopt­ed respon­si­ble ser­vice of alco­hol (RSA) prin­ci­ples (the answer will almost cer­tain­ly be yes) and how those prin­ci­ples will be imple­ment­ed dur­ing the event. It’s not sim­ply moral­is­ing wowserism to observe that the source of many prob­lems at work­place Christ­mas par­ties is exces­sive con­sump­tion of alcohol.

The theme: If you’re hav­ing a themed Christ­mas par­ty ensure the theme is not like­ly to cause offence, exclude peo­ple or unwit­ting­ly lead to inap­pro­pri­ate or dis­crim­i­na­to­ry cos­tumes or dis­plays. Remem­ber – this is 2023, not 1983. Social mores and cul­tur­al expec­ta­tions have changed. What might have once been accept­able or uncon­tro­ver­sial might not pass muster now. 

Fur­ther, while in 2023 there appears to be a grow­ing and increas­ing­ly active back­lash to what is some­times described as woke’ cor­po­rate cul­ture, the Christ­mas par­ty theme (and con­duct of the par­ty itself) should not be an oppor­tu­ni­ty to give expres­sion, or sup­port, to that sen­ti­ment. Those organ­is­ing work­place Christ­mas par­ties should eschew any anti-woke’ or be as offen­sive as you can’ type theme which could be seen as a tac­it endorse­ment by the employ­er of dis­crim­i­na­to­ry or harass­ing conduct. 

Start and fin­ish times: Start and fin­ish times for the par­ty should be clear­ly estab­lished and main­tained. Employ­ees should be noti­fied of them in advance of the event with the mes­sage rein­forced by an announce­ment made at its conclusion.

Behav­iour email: It’s become a fre­quent­ly mocked cor­po­rate cliché, but an email short­ly pri­or to the event remind­ing employ­ees of the need to engage in appro­pri­ate behav­iour and com­ply with work­place poli­cies is an impor­tant aid to man­age risk. Feel free to inject some humour or lev­i­ty into it, but not in a way that under­mines the key message. 

The behav­iour email has become even more impor­tant with the intro­duc­tion and imple­men­ta­tion of the pos­i­tive duty under the Sex Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act 1984 (Cth.) on employ­ers to elim­i­nate, as far as pos­si­ble, sex­u­al harass­ment in con­nec­tion with work. This duty requires employ­ers to take proac­tive steps to pre­vent sex­u­al harass­ment — the behav­iour email is an exam­ple of such a step. From 12 Decem­ber 2023 the Aus­tralian Human Rights Com­mis­sion has new pow­ers of inves­ti­ga­tion and enforce­ment in rela­tion to the pos­i­tive duty – just in time for many work­place Christ­mas events! 

COVID-19 Safe­ty: While there still should be an assess­ment of risks aris­ing from COVID-19 (which, at the time of writ­ing, seems to be mak­ing some­thing of yet anoth­er unwel­come come­back), it is high­ly unlike­ly any Christ­mas func­tions will need to be can­celled due to those risks or sig­nif­i­cant steps tak­en to active­ly man­age them. COVID-19 is large­ly under con­trol and work­place life has, for the most part, revert­ed to nor­mal. That said, as still com­mon­ly appears on many con­cert tick­ets, those who are unwell should be asked not to attend, giv­en that there will like­ly be a large num­ber of staff in close prox­im­i­ty at the event and there is a risk of spread­ing any infection. 

While the par­ty is on

Respon­si­ble man­ag­er: Christ­mas func­tions should have at least one respon­si­ble man­ag­er’, an employ­ee who will ide­al­ly abstain from alco­hol through­out the evening (or close to it) and iden­ti­fy, mon­i­tor and address issues such as:

  • RSA by the venue;
  • alco­hol con­sump­tion and behav­iour of staff; and
  • any safe­ty issues that might arise through­out the evening.

It’s fair to say the posi­tion of respon­si­ble man­ag­er’, the require­ments of which sig­nif­i­cant­ly impede the employ­ee ful­ly relax­ing and enjoy­ing the func­tion, isn’t like­ly to be cov­et­ed. The posi­tion does, how­ev­er, have an impor­tant role to play in man­ag­ing the risks that can arise dur­ing the event. A respon­si­ble man­ag­er’ shouldn’t just be the office prude or job­sworth; it needs to be some­one in a suf­fi­cient­ly senior posi­tion with the author­i­ty and capac­i­ty to cred­i­bly deal with poten­tial­ly risky situations.

Ser­vice of alco­hol: Ensure that the RSA prin­ci­ples are observed and imple­ment­ed, which might mean the respon­si­ble man­ag­er needs to liaise with the venue con­tact dur­ing the par­ty. Allow­ing employ­ees to help them­selves to alco­holic drinks with­out any over­sight is ask­ing for trou­ble. There should be plen­ty of water and non-alco­holic drinks available.

End announce­ment: An announce­ment should be made when the event has for­mal­ly end­ed. Ide­al­ly, do not also announce any after par­ties or oth­er func­tions, because this can cre­ate an impres­sion that they are also offi­cial or autho­rised employ­er events.

Trav­el arrange­ments: Take steps to ensure atten­dees have trans­port, or ready access to trans­port, to get home safe­ly after the event.

After the party

Com­plaints and con­duct issues: Atten­dees should have already been made aware that work­place poli­cies apply at the Christ­mas par­ty, includ­ing poli­cies relat­ing to sex­u­al harass­ment and bul­ly­ing. Any com­plaints raised by employ­ees relat­ing to con­duct at the event should be dealt with in accor­dance with the applic­a­ble policy.

For inci­dents that occur after the par­ty offi­cial­ly con­cludes, an impor­tant thresh­old con­sid­er­a­tion might be whether the rel­e­vant incident(s) occurred at work, or whether it is a pri­vate mat­ter out­side the scope of the employ­ment rela­tion­ship. In mak­ing this assess­ment a care­ful exam­i­na­tion of the rel­e­vant cir­cum­stances might be required.

If the com­plaint neces­si­tates an inves­ti­ga­tion, time could be of the essence. The inves­ti­ga­tor should seek to pro­cure state­ments before mem­o­ries fade and wit­ness­es go away for the Christmas/​New Year break. Ensure any nec­es­sary sur­veil­lance footage from the venue is obtained quick­ly to min­imise the prospect of it being unavail­able because it has been erased or lost.

Mon­i­tor social media: To the degree pos­si­ble and appro­pri­ate, keep an eye on social media post­ings to ensure that the rep­u­ta­tions of the employ­er and employ­ees alike are not dam­aged by inju­di­cious posts about the function.

Media out­lets are on the look­out for cul­tur­al­ly insen­si­tive cos­tumes or per­for­mances or out­ra­geous con­duct at cor­po­rate Christ­mas par­ties for easy fes­tive sea­son con­tent. While it’s rarely either prac­ti­cal or sen­si­ble to imple­ment a pho­to or social media ban, employ­ees should be remind­ed of the employer’s social media pol­i­cy and direct­ed to ensure they com­ply with it after the event.

What not to do

Go rogue: Watch out for the rogue exec­u­tive (often the own­er!) who climbs onto the stage, grabs the micro­phone and gives a mes­sage to atten­dees such as For­get the PC, Nan­ny State stuff. Drink up. Cop a feel on the dance floor. Have a great time!!”. There might be a time and place for the office icon­o­clast, but this isn’t it. Con­sis­tent mes­sag­ing from man­age­ment is imperative. 

The vic­tim blam­ing mes­sage: Some work­place Christ­mas par­ty arti­cles in the (not too dis­tant) past have sug­gest­ed employ­ees be asked to dress mod­est­ly to avoid being sex­u­al­ly harassed. This is an anachro­nis­tic, coun­ter­pro­duc­tive mes­sage that seeks to shift the blame for sex­u­al harass­ment from per­pe­tra­tors to vic­tims. With respect, it’s entire­ly misconceived.

For­get it’s the work­place: Employ­ees should be remind­ed that the event is not a licence to do things in the work­place that they would nev­er oth­er­wise do. A bar­rage of exple­tives direct­ed at the boss, an unwel­come propo­si­tion to anoth­er staff mem­ber they are keen on, or a punch-up with a staff mem­ber they dis­like are all as unac­cept­able at the Christ­mas par­ty as they are dur­ing any nor­mal work­ing day in the office or factory.

Man­ag­ing the risk from an employ­er Christ­mas func­tion doesn’t mean you have to be the work­place Grinch. Due dili­gence, effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion before the func­tion, enforc­ing appro­pri­ate con­duct dur­ing the func­tion, and (if need­ed) time­ly address­ing of any prob­lems or com­plaints after the func­tion can ensure a suc­cess­ful event with­out an ongo­ing employ­ment lit­i­ga­tion (or rep­u­ta­tion­al) hangover.