Christmas can still shine

Office parties

By Fran Metcalf    

The silly season is almost upon us again, but the annual office Christmas party will never be the same in the wake of the David Jones sexual harassment case, say lawyers.

Apart from $850,000 paid by the retail giant to settle the case against publicity co-ordinator Kristy Fraser-Kirk, the DJs matter has had a lasting effect on the very notion of socialising with work colleagues.

The case highlighted the fact that the workplace does not end at the office, says Kemp Strang Lawyers employment law partner Lisa Berton.

“Work-sponsored events and out-of-hours socialising are key danger zones – as demonstrated in the high-profile David Jones suit by Kristy Fraser-Kirk, where the alleged incidents occurred at external functions,” Berton says.

Brisbane lawyer Mark O’Connor, of Bennett and Philp, says companies may rethink traditional boozy staff office parties out of fear of potential sexual harassment cases.

“The office Christmas party is likely to be the first casualty as firms get tougher on staff and management fraternisation,” O’Connor says.

“Rather than having a long, boozy, Christmas party, they’re having a structured dinner where you sit round a table and it begins at 7pm and is all over by 10pm.”

“If everyone behaved themselves, there would be no need for it, but the sad fact is that when you have that combination of Christmas cheer, maybe more drinks than normal . . . things can happen that in the cold light of day you would regret.”

But event manager Susan Harris, who has just launched a service to stage work Christmas parties through her company Absolute Events and Marketing, says alcohol – which often heightens risks – doesn’t need to make an appearance.

“With the whole MasterChef craze, there’s corporate cook-offs where the staff get divided into teams and a firm comes in and runs a cooking competition,” Harris says.

“At the end, everyone gets to sit together and eat what they’ve cooked.

“You can turn it into a family event, hold it in the day and have carnival rides and laughing clowns or old-fashioned sack races and that sort of thing.”

Harris says many employers were forced to cancel Christmas parties last year because of financial difficulties and they’ll be looking to reward staff this time around.

She says no employers have voiced anxiety to her about staging a party this year in light of the DJs case and many are considering interactive options such as murder mystery games, mini-golf and V8 car racing.

“The average budget for a staff Christmas party is $75 to $120 a head and you can do lots of great stuff with that,” she says.

“Those who want to have a function with alcohol should have a discussion with staff in some way about how to behave and enjoy the Christmas party.

“They should also be aware of responsible serving of alcohol – there needs to be a food component if there’s alcohol.”

Berton says employers need to be fully aware of the definition of sexual harassment: any uninvited or unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that offends, humiliates or intimidates another person. The intention or motive of the person engaging in the conduct is irrelevant, and the recipient doesn’t have to express objection to the conduct.

“Certainly what is considered acceptable behaviour may vary widely among individuals,” Berton says.

But she says employers don’t have to be draconian about end-of-year events to protect themselves. Rather, they can minimise risks by following these tips:

  • Actively articulate and promote a standard of expected behaviour at work functions that does not tolerate discrimination or harassment.

  • Make the message clear: offsite events, whether a client Christmas party, a team lunch or a corporate box at the cricket, do not mean standards of behaviour can slip.

  • Ensure there is a complaint-handling process in place – make the workplace conducive to receiving complaints and, if they arise, act quickly.

  • Establish a framework for recording all incidents and complaints. This will help identify issues and may safeguard the company should a suit be filed.

  • Make clear to employees that these policies are not simple rhetoric – invest time in expressing the organisation’s commitment to providing a safe and healthy workplace.

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Article from The Courier Mail, November 2010.

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