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'Tis the season to get messy

It's that time of year again when the warnings about how to best avoid becoming embroiled in salacious office Christmas party scandals begin to emerge.Workplace lawyers take to the podium to…

It's that time of year again when the warnings about how to best avoid becoming embroiled in salacious office Christmas party scandals begin to emerge.

Workplace lawyers take to the podium to remind employers not to provide their employees with too much booze, ensure their bullying and harassment policies are dusted off, and remember they are still responsible for the conduct of their employees even through they are not at the office.

Ah yes, employers are reminded they could be liable for the drunken vomits, the nudey runs, the sexual harassment and the misdemeanors ending in arrest.

Vive le office Christmas party!

With seasonal precision, this week saw Brisbane lawyer Chris Ng, of Bennett and Philp Lawyers, come out and say that employers must also realise they could be up for WorkCover costs if an employee is injured at the office Christmas party.

"The rules for being a responsible host also apply to employers who organise or pay for an office Christmas party," he said.

"If an employee drinks too much during a work function and is injured as a consequence, the employer could face some unexpected costs."

And, let's face it, which employees aren't likely to drink too much at the Christmas party?

"Alcohol can and often does change people's personalities and simmering workplace disputes can spill over into violence too," warned Ng.

"Employers should consider careful planning prior to holding the party in order to avoid some potentially messy situations later."

Indeed.

Folklaw thinks this is perhaps a timely moment to reflect on one of the more famous "messy situations" in recent times: the Telstra Christmas Party Disaster of 2007.

For those of you who missed it, here is the crux of it: Telstra throws Christmas party; several employees book hotel room in anticipation of big night; big night ensues; employees stumble back to hotel room; one female employee gets "cosy" (rather noisily) with several male employees while other female employees are trying to sleep; Telstra investigates; female employee is sacked; she goes to AIRC for unfair dismissal; she wins; Telstra appeals; Telstra wins.

Messy.

So, as Ng points out, while it is easy for Christmas party warnings to be dismissed as pooping the party, so to speak, "the reality is that when people sober up, it is always possible that party excesses could become subject to legal action".

While it's great to have lawyers such as Ng on hand to offer legal advice about these matters, Folklaw particularly loves that fact that Telstra now has its very own webpage titled, "Handy tips to avoid a Christmas party disaster".

Written in 2010, the page offers hints such as, "businesses should take special precautions to care for employees during the Christmas party season or potentially face an expensive legal hangover" and "communicate with all staff that unacceptable behaviour could result in disciplinary action".

Wise words from a company no doubt eternally grateful the incident occurred pre-Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

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