New Zealand Law Society - Unnecessary paranoia around work Xmas parties or sobering advice?

Unnecessary paranoia around work Xmas parties or sobering advice?

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By Nick Butcher

There appears to be a good dose of paranoia around businesses holding Christmas parties or putting decorations up because of the threat of an accident.

However, some lawyers would argue there is good reason for that underlying fear if people don’t know a company’s employee expectations.

So, what’s the reality?

If an employer does fail to protect staff at a Christmas party, it could face prosecution.

ACC law expert John Miller says there are provisions under the Summary Offences Act 1981 in section 12 ‘Acts endangering safety’ or section 13 ’Things endangering safety’.

“If there is a prosecution then reparation may be sought for the injured person and that would be over and above the ACC payments,” he says.

He says there is also the more serious Crimes Act charges, such as in s145, Criminal Nuisance.

Those charges would likely apply if someone pulled a reckless prank at a Christmas party similar to the one that killed 24-year old Gareth MacFadyen 16-years ago.

Another lawyer, Kathryn Dalziel, whose specialities include employment and human rights, says people need to remember that Christmas parties are a work function.

“But while employers are responsible for health and safety, there are also employee responsibilities too,” she says.

Know what your work party policies are

Ms Dalziel says employees need to be aware of what their work policies are in respect of drinking alcohol and any other relevant policies such as code of conduct and sexual harassment.

“I have often received phone calls from people in the New Year who raise conduct at the Christmas party. Typical concerns are possible sexual assault and fighting so employees need to be reminded of company expectations in advance.”

“Love Actually” moments happen only in films

“And managers also need to understand that it is unlikely they will have a Love Actually moment with the young hot staff member but more likely a sexual harassment complaint,” Ms Dalziel adds.

Other stock standard Christmas party advice includes staff looking out for each other and identifying potential hazards, providing food and non-alcoholic drink options, along with not serving drunk people.

There’s also transport plans such as whether the employer is paying for staff to get to the venue and home, and identifying whether sober drivers will be available.

“It all may seem like sucking the fun out of Disneyland however, if it is sorted and clear beforehand, people can have a few drinks and sing “it’s a small world after all” or whatever is on the Karaoke machine that night,” she says.

But …. rumour and speculation could be killing all the fun

The health and safety regulator WorkSafe’s acting chief executive, Kirstie Hewlett, says the end of year season seems to bring a fresh avalanche of stories about how the Health and Safety at Work Act apparently prevents Kiwis from celebrating.

“Have you heard the one about how companies are banning workers from putting up decorations in their offices for health and safety reasons or that WorkSafe requires the task to be done by a qualified person? I can tell you some of our staff have been doing a bit of decorating and there wasn’t a qualified person in sight,” she says.

Another new myth, she says, is that employers might be liable for dance floor accidents at end-of-year work functions and that any function where a drink or two of alcohol was involved brought about a whole heap of compliance that made functions impossible to run.

“We’re not grinches – never have been. What we’ve got here is people who’ve got completely the wrong idea about what health and safety actually is. They’re the grinches and all they’re doing is raising unnecessary angst over things that are simply not a problem,” she says.

Ms Hewlett says WorkSafe as the regulator has no interest in banning things, nor does the Health and Safety at Work Act prevent such festivities.

“All the law requires is that people do what is reasonably practicable to keep their workers safe – no more and no less,” she says.