Tis the Sea­son to Avoid Fol­ly: Work­place Christ­mas Par­ties (COVID-19 Edi­tion 2021)

It’s that time of year. The Sil­ly Sea­son’. For many organ­i­sa­tions, the offi­cial employ­er Christ­mas par­ty is immi­nent. But this year, 2021, it’s with a dif­fer­ence. Employ­er Christ­mas par­ties will be held against the back­drop of the ongo­ing glob­al COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, includ­ing the new­ly emerg­ing Omi­cron variant.

The start­ing point for such 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. This year, the safe­ty of employ­ees will need to include an assess­ment of risks aris­ing from COVID-19. That involves a thresh­old ques­tion: should the work­place Christ­mas par­ty be held at all? The view of some employ­ers, after a sec­ond year dom­i­nat­ed by work­ing from home and end­less Zoom calls, will be that the work­place Christ­mas par­ty is more impor­tant than ever in bring­ing employ­ees togeth­er (albeit in a social­ly dis­tanced way).

Bal­anc­ing these 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. As was the case in 2020, this year there are also some addi­tion­al nec­es­sary COVID-19 relat­ed steps which it is hoped will not be need­ed in 2022.

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 ambiance 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.

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.

COVID-19 Safe­ty: For a range of obvi­ous rea­sons, employ­ers (and employ­ees for that mat­ter!) don’t want the work­place Christ­mas par­ty to become a super­spread­er’ event. Employ­ers should make rel­e­vant enquiries. Does the pro­posed venue have a COVID-19 safe­ty plan? Do they have prop­er check-in pro­ce­dures for those attend­ing? What is the max­i­mum num­ber per­mit­ted in the venue and what is the basis for cal­cu­lat­ing that maximum?

Employ­ers should avoid venues that have been penalised for COVID-19 safe­ty breach­es hold­ing an event at such a venue (even if it has cleaned up its act) might send a sig­nal to employ­ees that COVID-19 safe­ty is not a priority.

Thought also needs to be giv­en to activ­i­ties at the work­place Christ­mas par­ty and whether they can be under­tak­en in a COVID-19 safe man­ner. What will be hap­pen­ing with din­ner and food? What about danc­ing? To what extent will peo­ple be able to mingle? 

Employ­ers will also need to ensure they keep abreast of any changes in restric­tions that might be imposed in the event of a spike in com­mu­ni­ty infec­tions, includ­ing of course the emerg­ing Omi­cron vari­ant. Gath­er­ings such as work­place Christ­mas par­ties will be one of the first activ­i­ties like­ly to be affected.

Giv­en the chal­lenges posed by the pan­dem­ic, while some small­er employ­ers might retain their usu­al work­place Christ­mas par­ty, oth­er employ­ers will look to alter­na­tives such as small­er division/​department Christ­mas events or vir­tu­al options like tele­con­fer­ence triv­ia nights or drinks.

Vac­ci­na­tion require­ments: For those employ­ers who do choose to pro­ceed with a phys­i­cal work­place Christ­mas par­ty, a key con­sid­er­a­tion will be whether those who are not vac­ci­nat­ed should be allowed to attend. Giv­en an offi­cial employ­er par­ty is an exten­sion of the work­place, the issue of manda­to­ry vac­ci­na­tion aris­es in the same way as it does ordi­nar­i­ly at work. The restric­tions in place in many venues will pro­vide a ready answer to that ques­tion; the unvac­ci­nat­ed will need to be exclud­ed. Even where the Christ­mas par­ty is occur­ring at a place where the unvac­ci­nat­ed can legal­ly attend, employ­ers still need to objec­tive­ly assess whether they pose a mate­r­i­al safe­ty risk to oth­ers. While exclud­ing those who are unvac­ci­nat­ed from the work­place Christ­mas par­ty on the basis of safe­ty might be legal­ly nec­es­sary or jus­ti­fied, it is a step that some employ­ers may be reluc­tant to take culturally.

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 (includ­ing COVID-19 safe­ty, as dis­cussed below).

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.

COVID-19 Safe­ty: The respon­si­ble man­ag­er should ensure that the COVID-19 safe­ty plan for the venue is being implemented.

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 on to 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 has 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.

Pan­dem­ic denial: With com­mu­ni­ty trans­mis­sion in Aus­tralia cur­rent­ly at very low lev­els, it is easy to for­get that we are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic. As much as every­one yearns for a return to the pre-pan­dem­ic state of affairs, a busi­ness as usu­al” approach to the work­place Christ­mas par­ty would be irre­spon­si­ble. Employ­ees who decide the Christ­mas Par­ty is the place to declare their per­son­al con­vic­tion that COVID-19 is no worse than the com­mon cold and then ignore the spe­cif­ic safe­ty mea­sures put in place at the event to address it should be direct­ed to com­ply. If they don’t, have no com­punc­tion in direct­ing them to leave. 

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.