No matter how many years I have written about end of year workplace functions, the first weeks of January inevitably bring calls to the office along the lines of ‘something happened at the work Christmas party’. Usually a few weeks later the calls become ‘we have received a [insert claim type here: discrimination, harassment, negligence etc.] claim from an employee over what happened at the Christmas party’.
Additionally, we get calls from clients whereby they have received the damages bill for the behaviour of their employees and ask whether they can recover this from the employees. The short answer is ‘unlikely’.
To party or not to party?
Handled properly employers can limit their vicarious liability from conduct that occurs at a workplace function. Unless you cancel the function in totality an employer cannot eliminate all risks so here are a few mitigators that employers should consider applying:
- Have clear and appropriately drafted workplace policies relating to harassment, bullying, and the consumption of alcohol. Ensure all employees are familiar with those policies.
- At the start of the festive season reiterate with employees, in writing, the expected standards of behaviour when attending work-related functions.
- Serve alcohol responsibly and provide food and non-alcoholic beverages.
- If attending off-site premises, ensure a responsible person (probably you the reader), as well as any bar staff cut off intoxicated employees from being served alcohol and if necessary ask them to leave the function.
- Provide clear ‘start’ and ‘finish’ times for the function and ensure employees know that after the finish time the function is over.
- Do not organise a second site for an ‘after party’ as my historical list of cases on this subject is evidence that this is where bad things will happen.
- Provide safe transport home from work-related functions, especially in the case of employees who are intoxicated and/or otherwise vulnerable.
Act cautiously the moment problems appear on the workplace grapevine, either at or after the event. Any accusations made by employees have to be taken seriously, even if the accuser does not want any action taken. Its your business, your responsibility and your reputation.
If the accusations require a more comprehensive investigation then gather evidence, including any available CCTV footage, and start the interview process. Who was where, who saw what? Also remember that people aren’t always truthful or clear in recounting events. Give the accuser reassurances and give the accused fairness but no promises until the process is over, which will result in their marching orders, a warning or a finding that the accusations are unsubstantiated.
Better still, follow the points outlined above and your business will limit its liability. Otherwise I am happy to receive your call in the new year and help sort things out. Merry Christmas and have a litigation free 2018.
Charles Watson is a senior adviser at Workplace Guardian.
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