The Christmas party season is here! Work Christmas functions provide a great opportunity to mix with your colleagues, reflect on the year’s events and celebrate your achievements together. It is important to remember that both employers and employees have certain rights and responsibilities. These continue to apply outside of the work environment, explains Compensation Law Graduate Henry Garrett.
After a tough year on the tools, having faced the uncertainty and restrictions that came with the COVID-19 pandemic, and overcoming some of the most difficult times of our lives, it’s time to reflect and enjoy the Christmas season.
For many businesses, the end of year Christmas party has never been more deserving. With staff being disconnected working from home or even on reduced hours or stand down, an end of year celebration is a great way for businesses to bring everyone back together and reward their staff for their hard-earned effort throughout the past 12 months.
However, with festivities, comes additional risk. There are the obvious risks associated with hosting a Christmas event and the duty of care to employees the employer needs to consider.
The question of who is liable if an employee decides to overindulge in eggnog or become a drunken disaster can be misunderstood. It’s important to think about the work Christmas party as an extension of the work environment, and therefore the same standards of behaviour apply.
Employer’s liability – when are you covered as an employee?
- Traveling to and from the Christmas Party
Any event that is considered ‘in the course of employment’ must be covered by workers’ compensation. If someone is injured whilst travelling to or from a work, including work functions, they will be entitled to lodge a ‘journey claim’. In Queensland, WorkCover is the insurer of the majority of employers, although some of the larger companies are ‘self-insurers’.
The right to claim covers from the boundary of a staff member’s residence to the boundary of the premises in which the function is being held. This can get complicated at times. There are a number of things to consider if you intend to make a journey claim, and your individual situation would be looked at to determine your eligibility.
Journey claims are not a negligence claim, they are a ‘no fault’ scheme. This means an eligible claimant will receive weekly benefits and payment for any reasonable medical treatment without having to prove who was at fault (or negligent). Once the employee is back at work, or their injuries have been rehabilitated, the employer has no further involvement or obligations.
If the employee’s injuries were caused by someone else’s negligence and are severe enough to make a claim for compensation, there will be a separate insurance company (i.e. the CTP insurer in a motor vehicle accident or a public liability insurer for a slip and fall injury) who would step in to answer a claim for negligence. If there is a related compensation claim, any payments received from WorkCover in the journey claim must be refunded.
- At the Christmas Party
Your employer has the same responsibility to keep you safe while you are enjoying the Christmas party with your colleagues as they need to keep you safe at the office, or on the work site. Compensation claims are often accepted for people who take a tumble while dancing, slipping over on spilt drinks, or are involved in altercations with other partygoers that results in injury.
The foolish acts that people do when letting their hair down at the end of year Christmas party never ceases to amaze lawyers. However, Courts often favour the injured person in circumstances where they can prove that the employer significantly contributed to the injury. This usually involves the irresponsible service of alcohol or the employer not taking enough action to keep people safe and reduce the risk of incidents happening in the first place.
When a Christmas party takes a turn for the worse, poor management or misbehaviour could potentially lead to:
- Physical injuries– a physical injury that could be sustained at a work function could be slipping, tripping or falling, physical fights, cuts and lacerations, burns and abrasions, and even broken bones.
- Psychological injuries– psychological injuries can include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety as a result of an incident happening at the party.
- Discrimination claims– State and Federal anti-discrimination laws provide that employers can be held legally responsible for acts of discrimination or harassment that occur in connection with a person’s employment; which extends to the work Christmas party. Discrimination may be a result of bullying, harassment or even not setting clear expectations as to what acceptable behaviour is and then dismissing an employee for something relating to an incident. However, take note, there have been many cases where a judge has upheld the dismissal of an employee as valid due to the employee’s behaviour being completely unacceptable – so tread carefully.
- Sexual harassment – alcohol fuelled events can run the risk of lines being crossed. In no instances is sexual harassment acceptable and should you feel you have been sexually harassed at a work-related event; you would have the same rights as if it happened within the office or work site environment.
DISCLAIMER: Don’t be foolish – don’t put a dampener on the festivities
It is not all doom and gloom for the employer, staff also have an obligation to make sure they are doing the right thing and keeping themselves out of harm’s way. A person’s claim for compensation can be significantly reduced or can fail completely if they are found to have acted recklessly and have injured themselves in the process.
If you are intending on ‘letting your hair down’ at this year’s Christmas party, drink responsibly, look after your colleagues and don’t behave foolishly!