Christmas parties are part of the Australian workplace culture. They can be great for social interaction, easing tensions, celebrating a year’s accomplishments and enjoying seeing another side of each other. Mostly, they include laughs, inclusion, alcohol and perhaps some embarrassment the next day.

They can also see behaviours that aren’t acceptable at work – but, party-spoiler-alert, the problem is that, whether on paid time or not, an employer is still responsible for ensuring the physical and psychological safety and comfort of all employees at the function, and the damage they do to others or property. And I wouldn’t want to be the employer who lets employees drink and drive. Yes, employers can be held vicariously responsible for the actions of employees at work-related events. Make no bones about it – from a team-building and morale view, Christmas parties can be very rewarding, and from a liability view they can be very risky.

That employers even need to think about this might be seen as a sign of the times, surely not necessary or a moral obligation, depending on your preferred view. Legally, that doesn’t matter much, so to act responsibly and take all reasonable steps to ensure the safety and well-being of all employees there are some things you should think about. The challenge isn’t in whether they should be done (they should!), but in how you can do them so as not to be the Christmas party pooper.

As a part of their written invitation that you used some thought in designing or finding a template for (basic emails are a bummer), let everyone know what to expect, including, as a part of your commitment to the well-being of all of the team:

  • What types of food and drink are being provided. It’s not hard to cater for people with special dietary restrictions either, so if it is reasonable that you would have expected or known that individuals have restrictions and you chose NOT to make options available for them, it might be seen as discrimination or exclusion (which falls under the banner of bullying). You should DEFINITELY provide an endless variety and supply of non-alcoholic drink options, including water.
  • That your normal codes of conduct and behavioural policies apply. You don’t have to explain or apologise for this, but it will be helpful to present it as a choice you have made to help everyone feel safe and enjoy the event, rather having it seen as yet another imposition of power.
  • Let them know when it starts and when it finishes, who is invited (e.g. partners or not), and a dress code.

Outside of that, you’ll need to ensure:

  • That reasonable facilities are available. For example, a private beach party sounds like a lot of fun (actually it is), but there’ll need to be toilet facilities and some privacy available too.
  • That the party is as attractive and safe for everyone to attend or not attend. Any sex or sexual orientation, introverts and extroverts, any culture, any religion, any family commitments (it really is OK to leave early), and anything else – you know your team best so it is up to you to make sure their well-being is front of mind when planning and managing the event.
  • If behaviour is unacceptable, just as you would do at work, quickly and quietly address it in private with the person involved. If they want to argue or not change their behaviour, they need to leave. Order a taxi and send them on their way.
  • Watch alcohol consumption, and watch for signs that some might be partaking in other stimulating substances. The venue has an interest in this too, as its license is on the line, but it’s not often that service is refused at a work party. If you are seen to have allowed people to get drunk on your cheque, you are likely to be held responsible for the consequences.
  • The most powerful people in the group need to also be the most responsible, notwithstanding that they probably want to have fun and be seen as fun (feel liked). A silly statement or action at a party, especially by a leader, can tarnish a reputation forever. It might be helpful to think of the party as being for the team more than the leaders.
  • I’m going to come back to it again – the most powerful in the group need to be the most responsible. This is no more obvious than a middle-aged manager (male or female) socializing with younger employees (male or female) with whom they normally have a superior/subordinate relationship. It is easy to mistake the smiles and attention that come with respect for something else, especially out of the structured workplace and more especially when alcohol is involved. Don’t let “Me-Too” become “You-Too”.
  • When the party is over, it’s over. Stop the bar tab, make sure everyone leaves (you don’t need to be abrupt, but you do need to be firm). If the group decide to go clubbing afterwards, where you have little influence and no control, make sure that’s not seen as a part of your Christmas party.
  • Make sure people can get home safely. Taxi fares are a part of the cost of the party.
  • And, whatever you do, be a great host and let people have fun! It’s a great time to not be “the boss” and, if work pressures hold you back normally, to let others see you as the fun-loving (but not drunk),. generous and friendly person you are. The party is for the team, and as sponsor your role is to be a great host. You at your best. What else could anyone want?

Having said all of that, there is no guarantee that anything you do can guarantee a problem-free aftermath. But, like all other business decisions, it’s about maximizing the upside and minimizing risk.

Have a great party and a great Christmas!

Michael and the HR Rescue Team