Alexis Agostino

Preparing your workplace for this festive season

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which shone a spotlight on sexual harassment in Hollywood and inspired a spate of #MeToo complaints, workplaces globally are reviewing practices to MeToo-proof their operations.

“The international #MeToo movement has heightened awareness, a timely and important reminder for employers preparing for end of year festivities.”

Soon after the Weinstein story made headlines, actress Alyssa Milano took to twitter to encourage those who had been sexually harassed to comment #MeToo. Within 24 hours of Milano’s #MeToo tweet the hashtag appeared in over 12 million posts worldwide.

Statistics are sobering for Australian workplaces:

  • According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016 Personal Safety Survey, one in two women and one in four men will experience sexual harassment in their lifetime;
  • The Australian Human Rights Commission found that one in four women had been sexually harassed in the workplace, with only 20 per cent of victims estimated to report incidents of sexual harassment (indicating that this rate may indeed be higher).

While a person’s actions are their own, an employer has a duty to its employees to limit risk to their health and safety.

An end of year party is a great way to celebrate a business’ successes throughout the year and employees’ contribution to those successes. Unfortunately, if not managed carefully, work related social functions present a higher risk environment for sexual harassment and other inappropriate and unwanted behaviour.

Higher risk because the end of year party coincides with a period where work and personal pressures are high, everyone is frantically trying to finish work and meet deadlines before wrapping up for the end of the year. Fuelled with inhibition reducing aides such as alcohol and dress ups, this can be a recipe for disaster.

Timely reminder: what behaviour is appropriate in the workplace anyway?

As workplace advisors, we are regularly asked to clarify the fine line between what is considered appropriate workplace behaviour and a contravention of the various and relevant laws. A topical question this festive season, no doubt prompted by the international #MeToo movement, is whether the line has shifted.

“We are regularly asked – ‘Has the line shifted?’”

It hasn’t. But the preparedness of complainants to speak out is gradually increasing.

Appropriate workplace behaviour is behaviour that complies with applicable laws and company policies and makes others feel comfortable and safe to come to work. It involves subjective and objective elements, meaning it is far from black and white and often involves a cocktail of behaviours, emotions and events.

Specifically in the #MeToo context, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) defines sexual harassment as occurring when:

“A person sexually harasses another person if the person makes an unwelcome sexual advance, or an unwelcome request for sexual favours, to the person harassed; or engages in other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to the person harassed, in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated”.

Whilst a range of behaviours can contribute to a breach, employers and individuals in the workplace are able to set clear boundaries to protect from inappropriate workplace behaviours.

How do employers avoid the silly season becoming the seedy season then?

We’ve prepared a list of the top do’s and don’ts when it comes to the end of year party to assist you in safeguarding employees from inappropriate behaviour during what should be a festive time.

When planning the event…

  • Pick an appropriate venue and consider creative ways to have fun such as mini-golf, go karting, cooking classes, scavenger hunts and escape rooms. These offer a way to relax without involving alcohol.
  • Carefully select the right time to hold the function. A function in daylight hours is less likely to encourage unruly behaviour as people feel more visible and are more likely to self-monitor.
  • Keep it professional by having a dress code that reflects this. Avoid a casual dress code or themes that require employees to dress up. When employees are dressed in clothes they would not ordinarily wear to work, or disguise their real identity, they are more likely to lose their inhibitions which can lead to inappropriate behaviour.

Just prior to and at the event…

  • Keep your team members up to date about appropriate workplace behavior and ensure they are clear about the company’s policies and expectations, including that the end of year function is a work function and could impact their employment.
  • Ensure alcohol is served responsibly and consistent with your workplace policies. Alcohol decreases inhibitions and in turn, may lead to inappropriate behaviour. Alcohol should therefore, be served to supplement food, not the other way around. You may consider drink tokens and serving light alcoholic drinks to help manage this.
  • Provide transport home, to assist in discharging your duty to ensure everyone gets home safely.  Cut off times for employees using vouchers are also advisable to prevent a “kick-on”.
  • Don’t forget your own personal duty of care. While you too may want to have a couple of drinks, ensure that you are in control and can monitor festivities carefully. It is also a good idea to appoint a responsible person who will deal with any issues that arise during the function.

After the event…

  • Follow up on any complaints, immediately, and consistent with your workplace investigation, disciplinary, code of conduct and complaints procedures.
  • Avoid rumours by disseminating information where a public breach or incident has occurred.

An end of year party is something that employees look forward to. Set the tone for appropriate behaviour from the outset by ensuring employees are aware and accountable, and assist employees to make choices that limit the possibility of inappropriate behaviour.  This way everyone can enjoy themselves in an environment free of harm and celebrate a year of hard work and achievements.

We’d love to hear from you with your festive season scenarios – please email your ‘Santa’s Helper’ questions to Alexis Agostino: [email protected] You can expect to receive a same day response.