Balancing the Act: ADCQ newsletter -

Don't be a Christmas turkey

girl slapping guy on the faceAs the silly season fast approaches, most of us can probably reflect on Christmas parties past and the work colleague who inevitably has a few too many celebratory drinks. The colleague from the next cubicle somehow transforms into an uninhibited, extravert, unleashing themselves on unsuspecting co-workers.

But when does this behaviour turn from being an embarrassing topic of conversation in the office lunch room, to an inappropriate and illegal act of sexual harassment? Moreover, at what point is the employee no longer considered to be in the workplace and what powers do employers have to act in relation to employee behaviour at Christmas parties?

Behaviour of workers at the staff Christmas party is conduct within the course of work , says Acting Commissioner Neroli Holmes.

An employer can be vicariously liable for any harassment that occurs at the staff party, and they have the right to discipline an employee for engaging in sexually harassing behaviour at a work-related function.

Under Queensland anti-discrimination legislation, sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which a reasonable person expects would make the person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. Intoxication or overzealous Christmas spirit are not an excuse and are not a defence to complaints of sexual harassment.

However, employers can protect themselves against vicarious liability by demonstrating they have taken reasonable steps to prevent the harassment from occurring.

'Standards of workplace behaviour should be clearly communicated to staff on a regular basis', advises Ms Holmes. 'At this time of year, it is particularly important to remind staff that these standards apply to end of year work functions as well'.

Some tips for avoiding inappropriate behaviour at the office Christmas party:

  • Ensure policies are in place regarding workplace behaviour standards and that all staff are trained;
  • Remind staff prior to work functions that the office policies extent to out-of-hours work-related events;
  • Remind managers of their responsibilities to model appropriate behaviours and address improper employee conduct at the earliest opportunity;
  • Ideally, have a manager responsible for overseeing the work function so that appropriate action can be taken when necessary, including closing the bar if behaviour seems to be escalating;
  • Set guidelines for practices such as 'Secret Santa' gift exchange, to ensure gifts are not offensive or sexual in nature;
  • Suggest a dress code for the function that will maintain a level of professionalism and appropriate behaviour;
  • Make it clear to staff which events are 'work functions' and which are not;
  • Make it clear when a work event ends;
  • Deal with complaints promptly, and get advice depending on the seriousness of the incident;
  • Ensure any entertainment provided could not be considered offensive or sexist.

Anti-discrimination laws, codes of conduct and other workplace policies exist to ensure everyone can enjoy themselves free from harassment. So don't be the Christmas turkey this year; enjoy yourself but not at the cost of someone else's enjoyment.

If you feel as though you have been subjected to sexual harassment, or if you'd like more information on preventing harassment in your workplace, the ADCQ can be contacted on 1300 130 670.