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Beware the office Xmas bash: it could land you in court

Have yourself a merry little Christmas... but experts say it pays to remember the end-of-year office bash is still 'in the workplace'.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas... but experts say it pays to remember the end-of-year office bash is still 'in the workplace'. Photo: Janie Barrett

'Tis the season to be jolly, sloshed and much worse at the office Christmas party, an event that has marked the end of many careers.

Records from courts and tribunals across Australia show that, for some people, December is a time not only to drink to excess but to abuse, assault or sexually harass colleagues, or to give them inappropriate gifts.

In the worst cases, employers have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation and individuals have copped criminal charges.

It pays to be on your best behaviour.

It pays to be on your best behaviour. Photo: Thinkstock

A senior associate at legal firm Bradley Allen Love, Jennifer Wyborn, says that, even when a work-organised party is after-hours and no one is "working", the event is, effectively, an extension of the office.

"Put simply, the Christmas party is a 'workplace', regardless of when and where it's held."

Under workplace safety laws, employers could also be liable for any harm that befell volunteers who helped out at the event, she said.

At last year's Christmas do for Airservices Australia's Melbourne staff, a senior male manager allegedly groped and bit a junior female colleague.

An earlier, higher-profile dispute involved a Telstra shopworker who stripped and had sex with two male co-workers in a hotel, in front of appalled female colleagues.

After two appeals, Telstra won the right to sack her, arguing that, although her misbehaviour took place after the Christmas function, it was still "at work".

This year, the Federal Court ruled that a trucking business owner sexually harassed his younger receptionist when he gave her, as a Christmas gift, "lingerie and a pair of purple fluffy handcuffs", even though the pair had previously had an intermittent sexual relationship.

Ms Wyborn said it was best to avoid "joke" presents that might be taken the wrong way.

And her advice on sex with colleagues?

"Just don't do it! It may be that, in many cases, this has occurred and the couple ended up married and in a wonderful relationship," she said.

"The difficulty is when it goes rotten and one party doesn't accept that it's ended.

"In the private sphere, this may be seen as a desperate or clingy ex-partner, but it can become sexual harassment if it's in a workplace."

Perhaps the simplest way to avoid trouble while merrymaking, however, was to enjoy an alcohol-free Christmas party, she said.

"Or at least be very careful about the amount."

Party safely

  • Avoid grog or strictly limit your drinking.
  • Employers should make non-alcoholic drinks available and be ready to close the bar.
  • Don't say or do anything at the party you wouldn't do in the office during business hours.
  • If you're a manager, remind staff they're still at work and should behave accordingly.
  • Plan beforehand how staff will get home safely.
  • Keep gifts "clean": no hanky-panky or innuendo.
  • Unusually attracted to a colleague? Take a cold shower.

31 comments so far

  • Intercourse is natural and good for your health...why it gets a bad rap is beyond me. There should be more of it in general really.

    Commenter
    jg
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    December 06, 2012, 11:24AM
    • Just not with your parents

      Commenter
      Liam B
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      December 06, 2012, 11:40AM
    • Or animals

      Commenter
      Valachi
      Date and time
      December 06, 2012, 12:10PM
    • There is nothing wrong with either of the above.

      Commenter
      J.Fraser
      Location
      Queensland
      Date and time
      December 06, 2012, 12:20PM
    • J Fraser you should have left 'Queensland' off that post ...

      Commenter
      drovers cat
      Location
      an alleyway
      Date and time
      December 06, 2012, 1:07PM
    • or Ninjas.

      Commenter
      PJ
      Date and time
      December 06, 2012, 2:22PM
  • There's a great article about the dos and don'ts of office Christmas parties here:
    http://www.realcounsellingmelbourne.com.au/office-christmas-parties-gone-wrong/

    Commenter
    Melbourne Counsellor
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    December 06, 2012, 11:51AM
    • How do I go about getting a job with Telstra before the Christmas party?

      Commenter
      Ray
      Location
      Sunshine
      Date and time
      December 06, 2012, 11:53AM
      • I hope that doesn't happen at my department's party, we're all dudes...

        Commenter
        Daniel
        Location
        Telstra
        Date and time
        December 11, 2012, 1:35PM
      • True Daniel, it will be one very awkward workplace afterwards if you 'dudes' have one alcoholic drink & one man crush too many.

        What happened to a time when your boss gave you a big chunk of ham for Christmas & left it at that? Far less complicated than throwing a party...

        Commenter
        Qlder Doug
        Date and time
        December 19, 2012, 11:12PM

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