It is increasingly evident that in running a business, potential litigation can arise from even unlikely sources.  An alarming trend which highlights the dangers for employers that can occur at this time of the year is the annual work Christmas function.

In a previous case that was brought before the relevant federal industrial tribunal it was held that the dismissal of an employee for drunken behaviour at a workplace Christmas function was unfair.  Among other things, the tribunal expressed concern that:

  • the employer had failed to take precautionary steps to moderate the supply and consumption of alcohol at its functions; and
  • at the event, senior managers did not take steps to moderate the employee’s behaviour or to cut off her alcohol consumption.

This decision offers employers a seasonal reminder that organising work related holiday celebrations required careful consideration of liability for alcohol service and its effects.


Apart from the strict requirements under liquor licensing laws, alcohol-related injuries can result in full or partial liability for the supplier of alcohol, including an employer hosting a function for its staff or clients.  Liability can extended to injuries that occur in the absence of any proper supervision of the safety of all guests.

Party tricks and offensive behaviour

Certain inappropriate behaviour at staff Christmas functions, much of which can be attributed to the “good cheer” which often accompanies these events, can lead to employers being vicariously liable for discrimination or sexual explicit or derogatory humour in Christmas skits, inappropriate Kris Kringle gifts, and “party tricks”.  An employer’s only defence to a discrimination or harassment claim arising out of these circumstances is to show that it took all reasonable steps to prevent the behaviour from occurring.

Key risk management strategies

  • Make sure that you have clear policies on the service of alcohol at work events and on equal opportunity issues.
  • Be confident that employees understand that your alcohol and EO policies apply at the Christmas work function, even if it is being held off site.  Advertise this fact in clear terms and offer a refresher on the key elements of the policies.
  • Arrange for sober supervision for the duration of the festivities.   People who have clearly had enough should be asked tactfully to stop drinking and, if necessary, sent home via a safe means of transport.  Attendees under the legal drinking age should not be served.
  • Provide plenty of food, soft drinks and light alcoholic drinks.
  • Set a reasonable finishing time.
  • Supply or arrange safe transportation options for the night, and advertise these in advance to discourage people from driving that day.
  • In the period leading up to Christmas, employers are advised to have in place, and advertise, their policies about equal opportunity and the service of alcohol at work functions.
  • A failure to prevent injuries or sexual harassment during these festivities can result in significant liability for employers that can have a sobering effect in the New Year.

Any Member requiring assistance in dealing with workplace functions and associated legal issues, please contact the TTIA.

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