Commissioner Kristen Hilton said that every year the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission received complaints of sexual harassment at the work Christmas party.
"Sexual harassment is against the law. Whether the Christmas party is off-site or out of work hours, employers have a legal responsibility to protect employees against sexual harassment," she said.
"Sexual harassment can have serious consequences and may affect a person’s physical and psychological health. It can also lead to costly compensation claims for the employer, which may be held legally responsible for acts of sexual harassment by their employees if they occur at work-related functions.
"It may be timely to send a reminder to employees that the same code of conduct applies at the Christmas party when the invitations are issued."
Ms Hilton said that sexual harassment could include emails, messages on social media and text messages as well as actual physical behaviour.
"Sexual harassment is any behaviour of a sexual nature that is unwelcome, unasked for and unreturned. It can be physical, verbal, written or visually offensive material.
"For example, Kris Kringles can also result in sexual harassment complaints. Employers need to inform staff that Kris Kringle gifts should not be offensive or sexual in nature as these may also fall under the umbrella of sexual harassment.
"Alcohol can be big risk behaviour, as people’s behaviour may get out of hand if they drink too much. Employers should monitor alcohol consumption and behaviour. If someone is behaving inappropriately, the employer should be prepared to act quickly and try to diffuse the situation.
"It’s not about stopping people having fun, it’s about ensuring everybody is able to enjoy themselves."
The Commission received 170 complaints of sexual harassment in in 2015–16, and more than 80 per cent of these originated in the workplace.
People who believe they have been sexually harassed should contact the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission on 1300 292 153 or chat with a staff member online.
Top tips to reduce the risk of sexual harassment at the work end-of-year party
- Ensure your workplace sexual harassment, equal opportunity and social media policies are appropriate and up to date. Also check that your complaint handling policies and procedures are adequate. Make sure all staff know where to find these policies.
- Remind staff about what is appropriate workplace behaviour and that these standards apply even if the party occurs outside of working hours and away from the office. Warn employees about the consequences of inappropriate behaviour.
- Set clear start and finish times and do not serve alcohol beyond this time. Make it clear that activities that continue afterward are not endorsed by the employer.
- Encourage employees to know their own limitations when it comes to alcohol consumption and ensure management lead by example. Ensure no employee feels obliged to drink.
- Serve plenty of food and non-alcoholic drinks.
- Ensure that the venue is close to safe transportation home and advise employees that they should not drive if they intend to drink.
- Appoint a senior employee to stay sober to oversee the function, which may include taking appropriate action to address escalating behaviour such as sending some people home or even closing the bar.
- Deal with all complaints promptly, confidentially and properly.