It is the that time of year again when organisations send out their reminders to managers and staff (sometimes separately) about the expectations of appropriate behaviour at work related Christmas parties and events.  Occasions when, inevitably, there is someone who becomes just that little bit too relaxed and perhaps even uninhibited, under the spell of alcohol or other substances.

In 2007 we wrote an article in The Age on the topic (which is still floating around the internet today) and the message has not dated. Perhaps in 2019 the difference is that we have a heightened awareness of our rights under sexual harassment laws thanks to Harvey Weinstein. In fact as a consequence of people’s general willingness to raise their hands and say “me too”, senior executives, managers, supervisors, organisations, need to be very alert to the risks of poor behaviour.

Organisations that do not wish to be in the media or vicariously liable as a matter of law, need to take reasonable steps to prevent discriminatory conduct and maintain a safe workplace.  How to avoid the stories of groping on the dance floor; opportunistic preying on a drunken colleague; the trainee who drinks a gutful, falls flat on their face, and ends up in emergency; or alternatively, leaves the event with a colleague and is taken advantage of in a hotel room; and, of course, the infamous skits that offend more than they entertain?

These stories remain ever pertinent today and can be avoided in the following ways.

  • Inform employees that existing harassment, bullying and occupational health and safety policies apply. These are for the protection of all employees in the course of their employment — and the party to celebrate their hard work is no exception.
  • Inform managers that they are under an obligation to uphold policies — they may need to intervene in the event of an incident.
  • Make sure the policies are not just on paper, but clearly understood by all employees, and backed up by training.
  • Act promptly when someone does make a complaint. Have in place a process for an impartial, confidential investigation, and use it.

If you have organised performances or skits, make sure you are not unpleasantly surprised by what is in them (arrange for a manager to check their content before the party).

Provide plenty of non-alcoholic drinks; make sure people have enough to eat; and consider shifting the focus from boozing by providing some form of entertainment.

Make sure you can stop drinks service if necessary.

Set a reasonable and definite time for the closing of the event. Make it very clear that any “after-party” is not a work-sanctioned event, do not pay for it, and discourage managers from attending.

Provide staff with options for safe and convenient ways to get home.

Some tips for employees:


  • Keep in mind that offence is in the eye of the beholder — you may not be offended by some behaviour, but someone with a different age, sex, race, or other characteristics or background, might be.
  • If you’re involved in a skit, it’s useful to remember that rude or crude is not usually clever or funny, particularly when it relates to a particular person, people or department. Apply a strict “family values” standard — if your grandmother wouldn’t laugh, it’s not appropriate material.
  • Make sure you eat enough, and drink some non-alcoholic beverages. It’s often good to drink a glass of water per glass of alcohol. Because water is not dehydrating, it is easier to judge how much fluid you are taking in. If nothing else, you’ll be running to the loo rather than having a run in!

If you are looking for some fresh wording for your “season’s warnings”, don’t hesitate to call.

Sarah Rey is Founding Partner at Justitia. To view Sarah’s profile, click here.