How To Avoid Legal Troubles Over Office Melbourne Cup Celebrations Gone Wild

Melbourne Cup is the race that stops the nation and many offices across Australia take time out of the work day to let employees join in on the festivities. This usually involve copious amounts of alcohol, and after a few too many sips of liquid courage people can become rowdy and "handsy". As a manager, how do you avoid things getting out out hand?

Round of beers image on Shutterstock

When the drinks are out and people are having a ball in the office, it's easy to forget that it's still a work environment and workplace laws are still in effect. Swept up in all the excitement and alcohol, people tend to become uncharacteristically bold in what they do which can lead to insensitive jokes, physical altercations and even inappropriate touching of their coworkers.

While it may not seem serious at the time, these kinds of behaviours could land workplaces in legal hot water. Employees subjected to unwelcome advances and tasteless jokes could turn around and sue the company, and the workers who committed those indiscretions, for workplace or sexual harassment.

Even workers who simply overhear or witness offensive behaviour could take legal action. For example, if one of your employees overhears a colleague telling sexual jokes, it could be construed as sexual harassment and penalties can be enforced, according to LegalVision.

Here are four practical steps from LegalVision Principal Lawyer Emma Jervis that you can take to protect your business from potential legal woes as a result of Melbourne Cup celebrations getting out of hand:

  1. Know your policies and enforce them Your employees’ behaviour could breach your workplaces Sexual Harassment Policy, providing grounds to potentially terminate their employment contract. As we enter into the silly season, it is sensible to revisit these and to ensure your employees are familiar with your expectations of their behaviour. Circulating a reminder attaching the actual policy document is always a good start.

  2. Have a firm understanding of what does and doesn't constitute 'work time' Behaviour during work time is regulated by the workplace policies and legislation. Behaviour outside work time is, generally, not. But what is ‘work time’ and, consequently, the extent of your responsibility is sometimes a blurry line, and you should be sure to be mindful of when you are on the clock.

    Employers can also be held vicariously liable unless they can show that steps were taken to prevent the occurrence of the offensive conduct. If your workers want to 'kick on' after the work party has come to an end, make it explicit that any continuing functions are not deemed to be in the course of work. 

  3. Take care of your interstate staff If you have workers that are coming to the office specifically for the Melbourne Cup party, you could be held liable for their injuries sustained outside of the festivities if they are found to be in the course of their employment. Even an employee falling down in the shower could expose an employer to liability, so consider dropping a little extra coin on their accommodation to ensure it is safe!

  4. Exercise responsible service of alcohol It was recently found contradictory and self-defeating for employers to require compliance with its usual standards of behaviour at a work party while at the same time giving its workers an unlimited supply of alcohol. The takeaway? Don’t be cheap on the food and over-generous on the bar tab!


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