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It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt

Make your Christmas party one you remember for the right reasons
Bubble soccer, a cook-off or karaoke night - there are plenty of ways you can reward your team and help bring them closer. But it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt, either physically or emotionally.

You can never predict what's going to happen over the course of a workplace social or team-building event, and if you aren't prepared with the right cover, a bit of harmless fun can have sizeable repercussions.

So, without being total spoil-sports, let's use one business' mistake to explore the risks and repercussions that small business owners need to consider, and how they can be avoided.

Case study: Sexual harassment, bullying, unfair dismissal
It started out like millions of other office Christmas parties. The employer, a roadworks company, put on an open bar to thank staff for their contributions throughout the year.
But it's fair to say things went off-road pretty quickly.

At the party, an employee told his bosses to f--- off. After the party ended he allegedly sexually harassed several colleagues. When the employee returned to work in January he was sacked for sexual harassment.

It doesn't end there. The employee took the matter to the Fair Work Commission, which ultimately found he had been unfairly sacked, in part because his employer had supplied him with free flow of alcohol.

Commission vice-president Adam Hatcher reportedly said: "In my view, it is contradictory and self-defeating for an employer to require compliance with its usual standards of behaviour at a function but at the same time allow the unlimited service of free alcohol at the function."

Avoiding risks
  • Set the ground rules
Before any social event it's a good idea to send your staff a memo reminding them of your Occupational Health & Safety (OHS) policy, their obligations under that policy, and encourage them to be safe and responsible at the function, the Australian Industry Group recommends.
This can serve two purposes - it can reduce the risk of mishaps during the event, and if something does go awry it can serve as evidence that you took preventative action.

It's also important to note that if you direct, request or even support your employees to take part in an activity, the courts can consider that any resultant injury is work-related and therefore subject to workers' compensation.

  • Set physical and temporal boundaries
Clearly define the venue and the time within which the work-related event will take place. Any conduct which occurs outside those boundaries is likely not to be your responsibility or liability.
In the case study outlined above, the employee's alleged sexual assault was committed after the party's advertised end-time and at another venue.

As such, Mr Hatcher's ruling on the matter stated: "Employees were informed in advance that, in substance, the organisation's standards of conduct would apply at the function, but there was no suggestion of any expectation that those standards would apply to behaviour outside the temporal and physical boundaries of the function."

  • Identify and manage hazards
Manage the OHS risks associated with a work-related social function in the same way you manage any other OHS risks.

That means your pre-event planning should include identifying any safety hazards, assessing the risks and eliminating or controlling them.

Further steps you can take
Clearly, a bit of harmless office fun can have sizeable repercussions. But that doesn't mean you - or your staff - have to do without.

In addition to taking the above steps, consider protecting your business from any unfortunate mishaps with appropriate insurances, such as workers' compensation, public liability or events insurance.

For advice on protection and risk management, find a great broker here.
General Advice Warning: This advice is general and does not take into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. You should consider whether the advice is appropriate for you and your personal circumstances. Before you make any decision about whether to acquire a certain product, you should obtain and read the relevant product disclosure statement.

All information above has been provided by the author.

Andy Jamieson, ABN 17 613 588 266

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