'Tis the Season for Festive Celebrations: Navigating Legal Pitfalls at the Office Christmas Party

Celebrations such as the office Christmas party can sometimes test the boundaries of acceptable workplace behaviour. Mehraaz Sidhu provides some tips for employers to avoid tinsel turmoil.


Tis the Season! The annual office Christmas party is a time-honoured tradition, offering a chance for colleagues to come together and celebrate the achievements of the year. Yet, in the spirit of festivities, things can sometimes take a precarious turn, leading to potential legal challenges for employers. It can be challenging to recognise the significance of creating an enjoyable and safe environment for your team during the holiday season. While also avoiding legal pitfalls, below are some of our tips for safeguards that employers should consider to ensure a safe and happy festive celebration.

Work Health and Safety

As an employer, you have an overriding duty to provide and maintain an environment that is safe and without risks to health of the employees, as far as reasonably practicable. These obligations require employers to assess the safety of the workplace and any work event, including Christmas parties, even if held offsite.

In meeting these obligations, employers should:

  1. Conduct a venue inspection and reduce/eliminate any potential hazards, especially considering the consumption of alcohol.
  2. Ensure that the catering aligns with dietary requirements and allergies of employees.
  3. Appoint a supervisor to mitigate risks and provide a point of contact for assistance.

Unacceptable and Unprofessional Behaviour

It is not unusual for employees to drink in such excess that they engage in inappropriate conduct resulting in various issues for employers. For instance, in Keenan v Leighton Boral Amey NSW Pty Ltd, a drunken employee ended up engaging in a range of inappropriate conduct including sexually harassing his colleagues and verbally abusing his boss.

Without appropriate safeguards, employers can be exposed to myriad claims such as sexual harassment complaints, bullying complaints and workers’ compensation claims. Therefore, it is important that employers adopt preventive measures to minimise the possibility of any potential claims:

1. Establish well-drafted workplace policies emphasizing appropriate and respectful behaviour, applicable during festivities; and remind the staff about these policies prior to the event.

2. If alcohol is being served, implement methods of moderation, which can include:

  • Serving drinks for a limited period only;
  • Prohibiting self-service of drinks;
  • Ensuring that the venue refuses service to intoxicated individuals; and
  • Discouraging an open bar tab.

3. Enforce a robust social media policy to prevent reputational harm, either by cautioning employees about photo sharing or considering a ban on posting photos.

4. Employers have a duty of care towards their employees while they are engaged in any activity that is induced by or encouraged by the employer. Therefore, employers can attract liability if  an employee sustains an injury on their journey back home. As such, it is important that you organize a safe and convenient method for them to get home.

Key Takeaways

  • Conduct a venue inspection to eliminate potential hazards.
  • Appoint a supervisor to mitigate risks during the event.
  • Establish well-drafted workplace policies emphasizing respectful behaviour.
  • Implement moderation measures if alcohol is served.
  • Enforce a robust social media policy to prevent reputational harm.
  • Provide a safe way for employees to get home.

How Sharrock Pitman Legal can help

Both employers and employees benefit from a safe and harmonious workplace. Celebrations such as the office Christmas party can sometimes test the boundaries of acceptable workplace behaviour. Having clearly understood workplace policies helps everyone to know what is expected behaviour at work and the consequences for crossing the line.

If you would like advice or assistance drafting policies for your workplace or for any other employment law matters, please do not hesitate to contact our Employment Law team on 1300 205 506 or email sp@sharrockpitman.com.au.

The information contained in this article is intended to be of a general nature only and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Any legal matters should be discussed specifically with one of our lawyers.

Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation.

For further information contact  
Samuel Ellemor

Samuel Ellemor is a Senior Associate and Accredited Specialist in Workplace Relations Law, with expertise assisting individuals, businesses and not-for-profit organisations across a broad range of employment, commercial and not-for-profit matters. Samuel can be contacted directly on (03) 8561 3316.

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