A recent decision of the Fair Work Commission (FWC) may cause employers to reconsider whether they should provide alcohol at their next work-related social event.

The Case

In Stephen Keenan v Leighton Boral Amey NSW Pty Ltd(2015), an employee was dismissed for sexual harassment after being served unlimited alcohol at a work Christmas party. The employee apparently made unwanted sexual advances towards numerous co-workers and directed foul language at his boss.

It was found that the company's managers were directed to remind employees about appropriate standards of behaviour at the Christmas Function prior to its commencement. However, on the night of the function, there were no appointed managers to perform this supervisory role. The employee was served unlimited alcohol throughout the night and was not refused service after consuming more than 10 alcoholic drinks.

The Court held that the employee was unfairly dismissed and that his dismissal was harsh and unjust. One of the reasons was due to the fact he was intoxicated because of the Christmas function. His behaviour was a result of the manner in which the company conducted the function with regard to the control of alcohol consumption and therefore, the punishment was unjust.

What we can learn

Whilst employees do have a responsibility to behave appropriately at work functions, the decision highlights the need for businesses to minimise risks at their work events, including Christmas parties.

So, the next time you decide to have a work function with alcohol involved, consider some of the following "do’s and dont's" to minimise your risk:

Do’s

  1. Prior to the function remind staff that it’s a work function and that responsible behaviour is expected from all staff and their guests;
  2. Ensure that all of your HR and Work Place Health and Safety policies are up to date. Circulate them in the office and discuss the policies at team and staff meetings;
  3. If you are holding an event off-site, assess the venue for risk and ensure it has clearly marked emergency exits;
  4. Ensure that normal responsible service of alcohol standards are adhered to;
  5. Offer non-alcoholic beverages and water, so that employees can slow down their consumption of alcohol;
  6. If the event is themed, ensure that employees are reminded to dress appropriately;
  7. Consider organising travel arrangements, such as taxis or buses, to ensure that your employees get home safely;
  8. If your workplace celebrates the giving of Secret Santa presents remind employees that gifts shouldn’t be offensive or inappropriate.

Dont's

  1. Ensure that no one starts drinking games or competitions with colleagues. This will hopefully minimise drinking to excess;
  2. Remind staff that they will be held accountable for posting anything inappropriate online (including Facebook, Instagram and twitter);
  3. Knowingly allow underage or intoxicated employees to be served alcohol;
  4. Knowingly allow an employee or their guest to drive home intoxicated;
  5. Dismiss any post-party complaint;

By providing a safe environment for staff at work functions will enable employers and employees to enjoy the event. Employers should plan ahead, take precautions and be prepared for everything that could happen at the event.

This article contains information of a general nature only and is not specific to your circumstances. This is not legal advice and should not be relied upon without independent legal or financial advice, specific to your circumstances. 

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