It’s almost that time of year; the silly season. A time when neighbours in suburban streets are competing to see who can put up the most impressive Christmas lights, re-runs of ‘Love Actually’ are on TV with increased frequency and Christmas paraphernalia is on prominent display in shops. It’s also a time when, for many organisations, the official company Christmas party is imminent.
There’s no denying that the silly season and company Christmas parties alike will look a little different under the ‘new normal’ we’ve all become accustomed to this year thanks to COVID-19. Read on for key considerations when planning your office’s Christmas celebrations.
The starting point for work Christmas 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.
It can be a balancing 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 Christmas events.
Prior to the party
Examine the venue
There are various factors to consider in determining the suitability of a proposed venue.
First, in light of COVID-19, consider the size of the venue and its capacity given current physical distancing guidelines. Also check if the venue is registered as COVID-safe with a COVID-19 Safety Plan in place.
Next, consider 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 ambience 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 required for an investigation after the function – although hopefully it won’t be needed!
Consider 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 a common occurrence that the source of many problems at workplace Christmas parties is excessive consumption of alcohol.
Will the party be themed?
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.
Plan your 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.
Consider sending a behaviour email
It’s become a frequently mocked corporate cliche, but an email just 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.
While the party is on
Ensure that COVID-19 safety precautions in the venue’s COVID-19 Safety Plan are adhered to and clearly communicated to attendees.
Appointing a 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.
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; 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 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 also be plenty of water and non-alcoholic drinks available.
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.
Take steps to ensure attendees have transport, or ready access to transport, to get home safely after the event.
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 and 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.
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.