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Naughty or nice? Don't let your office Christmas party become a nightmare

Opinion

Poor behaviour at office Christmas parties can have long-reaching consequences for businesses and individuals, warns Adelaide employment lawyer Thea Birss.

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As Christmas approaches, the water cooler conversation turns to what shenanigans might happen at this year’s festive bash. The location has finally been revealed, a party theme announced (via email, complete with sparkly graphics) and the obligatory “remember this is a work event” note sent.

Will it be a night to remember? Undoubtedly. But unfortunately for some in many South Australian workplaces this year, the Christmas party fallout could last well into the next decade.

After the party

Those of us who have been in the workforce for a few years are sure to have some stories to tell about what stood out at previous Christmas parties. And not all of them are good ones.

A Human Rights Commission survey shows one in three people have experienced sexual harassment at work and this often took place at a social event. Another study by the commission in October revealed nearly half of all young retail workers had been sexually harassed in some way, on average seven times a year, not just by fellow employees but by customers as well.

Clearly, this is a huge community problem, but also one that we need to take seriously especially given laws are likely to be tightened to make employers more accountable in the future.

Throughout December and January, I often get calls to help cope with the aftermath of the festive season.

It’s when HR complaints run hot, although many people unfortunately still choose to stay silent on incidents. I hope this year if anyone experiences harassment or bullying that they will have the courage to stand up and call out bad behaviour – and to ask for action. It doesn’t always mean a lawsuit, but it can mean that something is done to stop it happening again.

A matter of perspective

As a workplace lawyer, the most common response I hear after I’ve put serious misconduct allegations to an employee is shock that someone has taken offence to their behaviour .

Some respond by going on the offensive, commenting about political correctness gone overboard: “What is the problem with giving a sex toy as a Kris Kringle? Can’t people take a joke?”

Others are more reflective. They’re willing to step into the shoes of the complainant and reimagine the action from another person’s perspective.

I interview the victims too. They’re genuinely upset. They are often highly stressed. And they are frightened and worried about their job security and their social standing in the workplace. That’s probably why only a small percentage of sexual harassment incidents are ever reported.

As human beings, we are so different. We have different values, interests, life experiences, and senses of humour. That means it’s important to engage in respectful relationships, inclusivity, and appropriate behaviour in the workplace.

The message I deliver during the silly season to those subject to workplace complaints is that work is a place where everyone deserves to feel comfortable and safe. And our workplace laws accord with this statement.

Not everybody feels comfortable with strong language, suggestive behaviour or unwanted advances. None of us feel safe on the receiving end of unlawful discrimination or aggressive conduct. Not all employees want to hear comments about what they are wearing, or how they look. However, not all of us are assertive enough to tell a colleague to pull their head in, especially if the colleague is a more senior person, a boss, or a customer.

Nobody has the legal right to be a jerk

Even though the office Christmas party is a “by invitation” occasion, it’s not a private event. You don’t get to impose your preferred party style on others to the extent you would be entitled to do so in your own home.

To those who respond to this message by asserting their right to free expression, I point out that there is no legal right to be a jerk.

Failure to consider the comfort levels of colleagues can result in damaged relationships, serious health issues, loss of productivity, and legal claims. In short: inconsiderate employees are a liability. Some of them will learn a hard lesson this Christmas; others will be searching for a new job in the New Year.

For the rest of us, this is a good time to reflect on our interactions with one another and to extend a sense of joyous goodwill as long as that stays within the boundaries of appropriate behaviour.

Thea Birss is an employment lawyer with South Australian firm NDA Law.

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