Christmas is a great time for businesses to celebrate the achievements of the past 12 months, but it pays to take caution when it comes to mixing employees and alcohol.

The annual Christmas party is traditionally a time of year when employees let their hair down. Employers around Australia normally hold lunches or workplace drinks as a fun team-building exercise. Yet amidst the celebrations, employers need to be mindful of risks associated with seemingly harmless workplace parties. Being aware of these risks can help employers avoid the sobering effect of liability.

Employers have a duty of care towards employees and should not put their health or safety on the line. Free-flowing bubbles in particular can lead to a number of incidents. At its most benign, overconsumption simply leads to a sore head the next day; however serious consequences can include injury and sexual harassment.

Employers should be aware that when their company holds an event – even if it’s just a few drinks and nibbles in the office – they are the host, and may be accountable for all guests and their health and welfare. This is the case even if the event is held off-site. Workplace social event incidents that have resulted in successful lawsuits against employers are well documented, with Christmas parties being one of the most likely times for these to occur.

Staff morale can also be threatened when alcohol flows too freely. It’s worth keeping an eye on employee behaviour as the party enters into its latter stages. Arguments can easily escalate to the point where it can cause irreparable damage to working relationships.

Other risks may not be immediately obvious. Many Christmas parties encourage the drinking of alcohol to ‘get into the spirit’ and a number of people who don’t normally drink might participate on the day without incident. Employers should be mindful that some people may have problems associated with drinking such as addiction or improper social behaviour.

Yet another danger to staff productivity doesn’t rear its ugly head until the next day – beware the sickies! It’s a well known fact that sickies go hand in hand with the staff Christmas party.

The risks outlined above aren’t in any way an exhaustive list. While workplace social events are a great way to encourage a positive work culture, it makes sense to safeguard your business against potential liability and protect your greatest assets: your staff.

Ruth Bourke, Employment Relations Adviser, Employsure