The Risks and Rewards of the Office Party Season

With the onset of the party season, businesses need to ensure that their staff clearly understand their expectations around behaviour.

Office celebrations can be great for staff morale and engagement

These events, when they go well, are significant contributors to staff engagement and staff wellbeing.  They represent a considerable expense to the business, not just in the hiring of the venue and the supply of refreshments and entertainment, but also in the time spent by relevant staff in organising the event, and in the inevitable loss of productivity on the day as workers slip into the party mood. Businesses need to protect their ROI.

And misbehaviour by staff members can put all these benefits at risk.

If a staff member starts a fight, damages someone’s property or, much worse, behaves in a sexually inappropriate way with another staff member, the consequences for the success of the event are dire, and they continue to affect staff morale and engagement long into the future. Businesses can be exposed to legal action for not providing a safe workplace or for not adequately guarding against harassment in the workplace.

Moreover, this sort of behaviour very often triggers dismissal proceedings, with all the consequences outlined above.

It is wise to reinforce expectations around staff behaviour prior to these events.

Businesses need to remind staff that these events, even when off-site and outside business hours, continue to be work-related functions. They should make it clear that the expectations for appropriate behaviour continue to apply, along with the risks of disciplinary action should the relevant standards be breached.

This should be the catalyst for proper staff training on workplace behaviours; it is essential and ensures that staff are aware of the behavioural requirements that apply to the workplace. It equips them to understand what behaviour constitutes bullying, harassment, or inappropriate sexual conduct.

But having a program of regular training, while essential, is not enough – businesses also need to:

  • distribute a timely reminder to staff in advance of the event
  • have in place comprehensive policies relating to workplace behaviour in general, with clear statements about the consequences that follow upon breaches

There is a role for line managers to play in this, but they need to be supported by formal training and documented exposure of staff to the training and policies.

While disciplinary action is a last resort, businesses need to be prepared.

If it comes down to the undesirable situation where a staff member’s behaviour warrants discipline or dismissal, businesses need to ensure they have the above training and policies in place.

Failure to do so can render the disciplinary proceedings ineffective.

A Case Study

The case of John Keron v Westpac Banking Corporation before the Fair Work Commission (FWC) dealt with just this sort of scenario. Keron, a relatively senior officer of the bank, was found to have behaved sexually inappropriately towards a relatively junior female staff member. The bank dismissed him (after following proper procedures) and he took a wrongful dismissal suit.

The FWC found the dismissal was appropriate in the circumstances.

One of the material considerations was that evidence showed that Keron had not long before the event undergone training in relation to the Bank’s expectations regarding employee behaviour generally and in particular, sexual harassment in the workplace. As a consequence, he should be taken to be fully aware that his behaviour was unacceptable.

Given a number of other circumstances of the case, it is reasonable to speculate that, had the bank not been able to demonstrate that he had been given that training, the tribunal may well have set aside the dismissal as harsh and unjust.

We may also speculate that the effectiveness of the training should be reviewed in light of the case. The tribunal found that Keron ought to have understood that his conduct – being that of a relatively senior officer towards a relatively junior staff member – would never be justifiable. Effective training should have left him without any illusion on this point.

The lessons to be drawn from this case are:

  • Train your people effectively
  • Have appropriate and clear policies in place
  • Remind staff of the expectations
  • Ensure that you document all training and the distribution of policies.

Useful Resources

GRC Solutions offers an online Workplace Behaviours training solution that sets out all the relevant legal expectations around workplace behaviours in an engaging, forward-looking way. We not only teach learners the basic requirements, we equip them to think about how their actions can contribute to a better, more inclusive and welcoming workplace for all.

Our new Code of Conduct online course covers the basic principles that apply to codes of conduct, introducing learners to the standards that every employee must comply with in the course of their work. The training is easily customisable: we can produce a version of Code of Conduct course that aligns with your specific policies and regulatory compliance obligations.

GRC Solutions Salt® learning technology allows businesses to create short, engaging, ad hoc training pieces, or to publish company policies, with relevant quizzes, in short order. It can be ready to roll in as little as 20 minutes.

Salt technology provides unparalleled deep data reporting that allows businesses to see precisely how much attention staff members pay to the training. Managers can then follow up if necessary to ensure staff genuinely understand their responsibilities.