Party pooper

The David Jones sex­ual ha­rass­ment case has firms run­ning scared as they con­tem­plate of­fice Christ­mas par­ties but there are many ways to cel­e­brate with­out al­co­hol-fu­elled risks, writes Fran Met­calf

The Courier-Mail - Career One - - Front Page -

Will the of­fice Christ­mas party ever be the same?

THE silly sea­son is al­most upon us again, but the an­nual of­fice Christ­mas party will never be the same in the wake of the David Jones sex­ual ha­rass­ment case, say lawyers.

Apart from $850,000 paid by the re­tail gi­ant to set­tle the case against pub­lic­ity co-or­di­na­tor Kristy FraserKirk, the DJs mat­ter has had a last­ing ef­fect on the very no­tion of so­cial­is­ing with work col­leagues.

The case high­lighted the fact that the work­place does not end at the of­fice, says Kemp Strang Lawyers em­ploy­ment law part­ner Lisa Berton.

‘‘Work-spon­sored events and outof-hours so­cial­is­ing are key dan­ger zones – as demon­strated in the high­pro­file David Jones suit by Kristy Fraser-Kirk, where the al­leged in­ci­dents oc­curred at ex­ter­nal func­tions,’’ Berton says.

Bris­bane lawyer Mark O’Con­nor, of Ben­nett and Philp, says com­pa­nies may re­think tra­di­tional boozy staff of­fice par­ties out of fear of po­ten­tial sex­ual ha­rass­ment cases.

‘‘The of­fice Christ­mas party is likely to be the first ca­su­alty as firms get tougher on staff and man­age­ment frater­ni­sa­tion,’’ O’Con­nor says.

‘‘Rather than hav­ing a long, boozy, Christ­mas party, they’re hav­ing a struc­tured din­ner where you sit round a ta­ble and it be­gins at 7pm and is all over by 10pm.’’

‘‘If ev­ery­one be­haved them­selves, there would be no need for it, but the sad fact is that when you have that com­bi­na­tion of Christ­mas cheer, maybe more drinks than nor­mal . . . things can hap­pen that in the cold light of day you would re­gret.’’

But event man­ager Su­san Har­ris, who has just launched a ser­vice to stage work Christ­mas par­ties through her com­pany Ab­so­lute Events and Mar­ket­ing, says al­co­hol – which of­ten height­ens risks – doesn’t need to make an ap­pear­ance.

‘‘With the whole MasterChef craze, there’s cor­po­rate cook-offs where the staff get di­vided into teams and a firm comes in and runs a cook­ing com­pe­ti­tion,’’ Har­ris says.

‘‘At the end, ev­ery­one gets to sit to­gether and eat what they’ve cooked.

‘‘You can turn it into a fam­ily event, hold it in the day and have car­ni­val rides and laugh­ing clowns or old­fash­ioned sack races and that sort of thing.’’

Har­ris says many em­ploy­ers were forced to can­cel Christ­mas par­ties last year be­cause of fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties and they’ll be look­ing to re­ward staff this time around.

She says no em­ploy­ers have voiced anx­i­ety to her about stag­ing a party this year in light of the DJs case and many are con­sid­er­ing in­ter­ac­tive op­tions such as murder mys­tery games, mini-golf and V8 car rac­ing.

‘‘The av­er­age bud­get for a staff Christ­mas party is $75 to $120 a head and you can do lots of great stuff with that,’’ she says.

‘‘Those who want to have a func­tion with al­co­hol should have a dis­cus­sion with staff in some way about how to be­have and en­joy the Christ­mas party.

‘‘They should also be aware of re­spon­si­ble serv­ing of al­co­hol – there needs to be a food com­po­nent if there’s al­co­hol.’’

Berton says em­ploy­ers need to be fully aware of the def­i­ni­tion of sex­ual ha­rass­ment: any un­in­vited or un­wel­come con­duct of a sex­ual na­ture that of­fends, hu­mil­i­ates or in­tim­i­dates an­other per­son. The in­ten­tion or mo­tive of the per­son en­gag­ing in the con­duct is ir­rel­e­vant, and the re­cip­i­ent doesn’t have to ex­press ob­jec­tion to the con­duct.

‘‘Cer­tainly what is con­sid­ered ac­cept­able be­hav­iour may vary widely among in­di­vid­u­als,’’ Berton says.

But she says em­ploy­ers don’t have to be dra­co­nian about end-of-year events to pro­tect them­selves. Rather, they can min­imise risks by fol­low­ing these tips:

Ac­tively ar­tic­u­late and pro­mote a stan­dard of ex­pected be­hav­iour at work func­tions that does not tol­er­ate dis­crim­i­na­tion or ha­rass­ment.

Make the mes­sage clear: off­site events, whether a client Christ­mas party, a team lunch or a cor­po­rate box at the cricket, do not mean stan­dards of be­hav­iour can slip.

En­sure there is a com­plaint-- han­dling process in place – make the work­place con­ducive to re­ceiv­ing com­plaints and, if they arise, act quickly.

Es­tab­lish a frame­work for record­ing all in­ci­dents and com­plaints. This will help iden­tify is­sues and may safe­guard the com­pany should a suit be filed.

Make clear to em­ploy­ees that these poli­cies are not sim­ple rhetoric – in­vest time in ex­press­ing the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s com­mit­ment to pro­vid­ing a safe and healthy work­place.

TIN­SEL TIMES: Su­san Har­ris says al­co­hol – and the risks that go with it – can be avoided. Pic­ture: Bruce Long

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