The good, the bad and the ugly: staff Christmas parties

With the Christmas break just two weeks away, many employers are having their end of year celebrations.  Whilst those functions provide staff with the opportunity to relax and socialise in a setting away from the day to day constraints of the workplace, they also have the potential to provide major hangovers for employers.  In recent years there have been a number of significant cases involving staff conduct at the work Christmas party, and the question of how much control an employer has over its employees' personal lives.

The highly published case of Carlie Streeter v Telstra Corporation is one such case.  In the early hours of the morning after an office Christmas function, Ms Streeter and two male employees had returned to their hotel room in an inebriated state.  The following day a fourth employee, who was also in the room, made a complaint to Telstra that during the course of the evening, Ms Streeter had sexually harassed her by being naked and engaging in sexual intercourse with the two male employees in the hotel bath. 

Telstra conducted an investigation into the complaint and subsequently dismissed Ms Streeter for serious misconduct.  Ms Streeter lodged an unfair dismissal claim on the basis that the alleged incident had not occurred at the workplace or during work time and did not amount to sexual harassment.

Ultimately, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission on appeal held that Ms Streeter had not been unfairly dismissed.  The question of whether the party was a work function was a central issue.  In respect of that point it was held that whilst the incident occurred outside of work and away from the workplace, it had significant implications for the staff at the workplace and thus in that instance it could be considered part of the workplace and would require the employer to take appropriate action.

Some practical tips for employers

Whilst it is not suggested that employers by their actions take all the fun, camaraderie and spirit out of the traditional Christmas party, care must be taken to avoid a ‘Ms Streeter’ type situation developing.  In that respect the adoption of some basic guidelines such as those below, will go along way towards avoiding the unwanted consequence of a workplace Christmas function.

  • Prior to the event, the employer should remind all staff that whilst it may be a Christmas function and a time to relax and enjoy themselves, it is still work and there are expected standards of behaviour to be observed.

  • Employees should be aware that if any inappropriate behaviour takes place, it will be subject to disciplinary action.

  • The employer should manage the service of alcohol in a reasonable and responsible manner and if necessary, be in a position to stop the service either to the function generally or those employees who have over indulged.

  • Precautions should be taken to ensure junior staff are not served alcoholic drinks during the function.

  • There should always be non-alcoholic or low alcohol options available for staff.

  • There should be appropriate food available throughout the function.

  • The employer should make sure it provides a sound process for staff to safely get home.

Whilst the office Christmas party is a time to relax and enjoy the company of others, employers and employees should not forget that the party is an extension of the workplace at which appropriate standards and decorum should be maintained.

It is indeed a case of prevention being better than the cure.

For more information, please contact:

Ian Curlewis Michael Jensen
Partner Senior Associate
(08) 9288 6756 (08) 9288 6944


Disclaimer – the information contained in this publication does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. You should seek legal advice in relation to any particular matter you may have before relying or acting on this information. The Lavan team are here to assist.