Parties / Don’t get blasted, focus on the quality

Wine columnist-cum-lawyer RICHARD CALVER offers a little free legal advice to surviving Christmas parties…

AT this time of the year I receive a large number of admonitory communications, mostly from law firms.

They often amount to advice that sets out the ways in which employers can be held liable for the actions of their staff and guests at Christmas parties, particularly where the employer supplies an unlimited quantity of beer and wine.

Richard Calver.

They all have a similar theme: these parties are intended to be an investment to reward clients or staff and to provide a positive experience yet can sometimes turn out to be costly and counter-productive.

The advice in these “tips” if taken in their entirety would be hard for some employers to implement; for example, employers are urged to ensure that they provide transport home for those who are unable to drive due to alcohol consumption. Many would have difficulty meeting the cost of that requirement and that seems to be taking the “nanny state” notion too far.

Another criterion from the list that might be difficult to meet is the idea that employers should inspect the venue for hazards and make potential risk areas out of bounds.

As a lawyer, I commend the advice. Yet part of me wants to howl at this particular moon. I think that personal responsibility for actions that are taken is a worthy message to be reinforced at Christmas: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

From a mindset where personal responsibility predominates, the badge that we should all wear to these parties reads: “Do as you like but take the consequences, and don’t even think about kissing me”.

Because sometimes an employer wears the costs of the harassment that is wreaked but can’t dismiss the employee despite behaviour that is beyond the pale, mostly where the employer fails to properly monitor the supply of alcohol or fails to provide food and transport and a “cut-off” point. For those who want a case that exemplifies this awkward outcome, read: Keenan v Leighton Boral Amey NSW Pty Ltd [2015] FWC 3156.

The admonition contained in one of yet another 10 tips for Christmas parties “as a manager, this is not the time to undertake a performance appraisal and give feedback to staff, especially if you’re drunk”. Duh!

The message that seems to come out loud and clear from all of these tips is that most company party horror stories begin at the open, nay never closed, bar. So, the idea of not drinking too much reverberates through all of this advice. Just don’t get blasted, two to three glasses of wine are enough – focus on the quality. Take responsibility. Treat it like you are still working but with a little less inhibition.

As was pointed out by one law firm, the duty of care to ensure the safety and wellbeing of staff does not end with the crack of a twist top. The employer remains liable for the activities of their staff at these functions, so my one tip with a bullet is to remind people of the rubric of personal responsibility.

But talk of twist tops reminds me of a lame Christmas party joke – although the wine may not be corked, is it a fair substitute to ask if it’s screwed? It seems that I do have one final piece of Christmas advice: please, please read out the bad Christmas cracker jokes. Why was Santa’s little helper feeling depressed? Not because he was reading all the law-firm advice, he just had low elf-esteem.

“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” Ayn Rand

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