Staff parties are fun – but are they safe?

With the end of the year fast approaching, many businesses will be organising staff parties to celebrate their employees’ contributions. Christmas functions can be a great way to unwind and get to know one another.  But, when alcohol is involved, which it almost inevitably is, there is room for bad decisions, injuries, inappropriate behaviour, reputational damage, and disciplinary issues.

Health and safety rules apply – even at work parties
The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (Act) requires you to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the workplace, the means of entering and exiting the workplace and anything arising from the workplace is without risks to the health and safety of any person. Even if a party or function is held offsite, the venue will be considered a “workplace” for the purposes of the Act.

Alcohol is a well recognised hazard that poses very serious risks to health and safety resulting in risk taking and dangerous behaviour.  Under the Act hazards must be eliminated so far as is reasonably practicable.  If you decide not to take the reasonably practicable step of eliminating alcohol completely from your celebrations, then steps you can take to minimise the risks posed by alcohol so far as is reasonably practicable may include the following:

  • Inspecting the venue before the function takes place to identify hazards and associated risks
  • Ensuring the venue is in a safe location (i.e. away from traffic or a cliff face)
  • Communicating health and safety considerations to your employees
  • Asking staff to volunteer to be a designated sober party goer in case of an emergency
  • Engaging security at the venue
  • Limiting the number of drinks your staff can consume
  • Ensuring alcohol is not served to persons under the age of 18
  • Ensuring alcohol is not served to intoxicated persons
  • Providing entertainment and activities
  • Ensuring free food and non-alcoholic beverages is readily available
  • Arranging transport to ensure staff get home safely

Misconduct
Make sure your policies provide guidance and set out what the appropriate standards of behaviour are. Even if misconduct at a staff party occurs outside of normal working hours it may still justify dismissal, provided that the behaviour if sufficiently serious and the employer undertakes a fair and reasonable disciplinary process. For more information on undertaking a disciplinary process see here.

Employers should be aware that they may have difficulty disciplining an employee for inappropriate behaviour if they have exposed them to unlimited, free alcohol, because of the need to balance the employer’s obligation to provide a healthy and safe workplace with the employee’s culpability for their actions.

Some examples of misconduct associated with the intake of alcohol include:

  • Conduct that brings the employer into disrepute
  • Serious breaches of work rules or policies
  • Any form of harassment
  • Fighting, physical abuse or assault
  • Unauthorised possession or damage to property
  • Any crime, offence or dishonest act

Have fun and be safe this Christmas.

Be proactive in the planning phase and consult your company policies (i.e. health and safety, social media, bullying and harassment, drug and alcohol, disciplinary etc.) to make sure these are adhered to.  Consider what the most appropriate location will be, who will host the event, what your expectations are of staff, what ground rules should be in place, and how you might communicate this to your employees.

If you are planning a work function, or are updating your current workplace policies around alcohol and work, please contact us for advice.

Disclaimer: We remind you that while this article provides commentary on employment law and health and safety topics, it should not be used as a substitute for legal or professional advice for specific situations. Please seek legal advice from your lawyer for any questions specific to your workplace.

September 2017