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A group of office workers laughing and drinking sparkling wine from champagne glasses at their work Christmas party

Ho…Ho…No! How to avoid HR issues at your work Christmas party

Work Christmas parties offer a great opportunity to celebrate the year's work, but they can also cause HR hangovers if not effectively managed.

Work Christmas parties are a great way to celebrate with your staff and are often eagerly anticipated events. However, they’re also notorious for alcohol-fuelled incidents such as sexual harassment and safety breaches, which may lead to HR hangovers and sometimes legal action. So, before you pop that champagne cork, consider what you’ll do before, during and after the event to promote a safe and enjoyable celebration.

What are the employer's responsibilities for work Christmas parties?

As an employer, you have a duty of care to your employees and visitors, whether the event is on-site or off-site. You must take reasonable steps to control the flow of alcohol and limit the risk of:

  • Discrimination
  • Harassment
  • Bullying


Failure to take reasonable steps may result in your organisation being held responsible for any incidents during the function (known as vicarious liability), breaches of safety laws, or other legal issues. So you must show that your organisation took reasonable steps to reduce or manage potential problems.

Before the work Christmas party

Before the event, ensure you communicate behavioural and corporate expectations to all staff. It’s a critical step because any workers attending a work function will be considered “at work” and therefore bound by workplace policies, procedures and legislation.

We recommend that you:

  • Review relevant policies to ensure they’re up-to-date, for example, policies for workplace safety, discrimination and harassment, and disciplinary action
  • Communicate any policy changes to your workforce and ensure they receive appropriate training on the policy contents
  • Train and communicate with your managers and team leaders about the behaviour expectations and policy contents

You should also send an email or notice to each employee with a reminder of relevant HR policies, procedures and expectations. Ensure that you also inform your employees of the consequences they may face for inappropriate conduct and outline the relevant sections of your disciplinary action policy.

If your workplace has a code of conduct, remind the employee of the relevant sections.

Also, check that your organisation has safeguards to reduce the risk of vicarious liability, for example:

  • Check that the venue will serve alcohol responsibly and how this is enforced
  • Set an end time for the function and advise all staff in writing
  • Inform staff of any transport arrangements to and from the venue
  • Advise all staff in writing that any after-party isn’t a sanctioned work function, and all staff must leave the premises at the end of the official event

If there’s an incident, you may need to establish that you took reasonable steps to reduce the risk of potential issues. The email or notice will be proof of this, so it should include detail about the relevant policies, your expectations, and the possible consequences of any incident.

During the work Christmas party

Workplace functions and celebrations typically include alcohol, so you’ll need to take steps to help your guests manage their consumption. For example, provide water and other non-alcoholic drinks and ensure there’s plenty of food available.

Set an end-time for the service of alcohol on the company’s tab and instruct the bar staff not to serve alcoholic beverages to anyone under the legal drinking age.

You’ll also need to appoint a responsible person to monitor guests’ behaviour. The venue may nominate a staff member to act as a responsible person. However, we recommend you also appoint a team leader or manager to act as a responsible person and monitor any safety hazards. Members of management should lead as a positive example while at the party. Ensure your managers are prepared and trained to intervene if necessary.

If you must evict someone because they pose a risk to their health and safety or others, ensure you have a procedure to get that person home safely.

Consider providing taxi vouchers or other transport to all staff to avoid drink driving issues.

After the work Christmas party

There can be a blurring of lines if your employees go on to another party after the work Christmas party. For example, where does your responsibility end? Or does it end at all? That’s why you must communicate fixed start and finish times to all employees in advance or the event. It’s also why you must ensure that all staff leave the venue at the end of the official function, so there is a clear line that the official celebrations have ended.

Avoid contributing to arrangements for an after-party. If you get involved, other issues can arise, for example:

  • It may be difficult to exclude yourself (or your organisation) from any liability
  • You may struggle to establish that the after-party was outside the employment relationship

You and your management team should debrief as soon as possible after the event, while your memory is fresh and before your team take leave. Discuss what worked, any incidents or issues, and document your discussions for future consideration and improvement.

What to do if there's an incident

If there’s an incident during the event, take steps to ensure everyone’s safety. For example, you may need to:

  • Call 000 for emergencies
  • Arrange for transportation
  • Ensure a support person is available to spend time with your employee

After the event, you will need to investigate as you would for any other type of incident.

Whether you become aware of an incident at the event or afterwards, act quickly to start your investigation before people go on holidays.

You’ll need to:

  • Make detailed notes of your communication with the complainant
  • Identify any witnesses and arrange to meet with them for an interview
  • Consult workplace policies and the workplace code of conduct to work out how the investigation should proceed
  • Take detailed notes during each interview and have another manager present as your witness
  • Allow the witnesses, complainant and alleged perpetrator to have a support person present at their interview
  • Put all the allegations to the alleged perpetrator and allow them to respond, put their version of events to you, and raise any other issues
  • If relevant, speak with any staff at the venue who may have witnessed the incident
  • Review the evidence in consultation with workplace policies and procedures

You’ll need to assess the seriousness of the incident and decide what action (if any) is appropriate. For example, a minor issue may involve an informal reminder about proper conduct. A serious incident may warrant a formal disciplinary procedure or even termination of employment. If your workplace has a grievance or disciplinary action policy, you should review those documents when deciding what action is appropriate.

Before taking disciplinary action, contact us to discuss your findings and what to do next.

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