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Otago survey shows care needed at Christmas and social functions

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

A University of Otago survey of 1000 employers and employees in New Zealand has found that many things can go wrong at work social events when alcohol is involved.

A study led by Professor Ian McAndrew from the Department of Management at Otago’s Business School, including Dr Fiona Edgar from Management and Dr Trudy Sullivan from the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, surveyed around 800 public and private sector employees and over 200 employers from around the country. The survey took place between August and September 2016.

They asked study participants about their own and workplace attitudes towards alcohol consumption, the availability of alcohol at work-related functions, and the positive and negative consequences of having alcohol at work-related social events.

Almost three quarters of the respondents reported that work social functions, both on and off-site, had alcohol available, mostly wholly or partially paid for by the employer.

Most in the study had experienced no significant problems from alcohol availability at work events, and indicated that employees generally enjoyed alcohol in responsible moderation around managers and workmates.

However, there were many instances of inappropriate behaviour reported, and some of these had major consequences for staff members and employers.

Twenty percent of employee respondents had seen festivities fall foul when staff over-indulged at work events, while 25 per cent of employer respondents reported dealing with inappropriate behaviour at work events.

Professor McAndrew said the two damaging kinds of behaviours at works functions were aggression and sexual behaviour or harassment.

"We have recorded instances where there has been damage to property at the workplace or at hospitality venues, physical or emotional injury or people have lost their jobs through either aggressive or sexually-oriented behaviours.

"The instances include serious and often disastrous examples of people losing their jobs, resulting in grievances being addressed through mediation, adjudication or even escalating to the Employment Court. Alcohol at work functions has damaged careers and relationships."

At the other end of the scale, the study noted embarrassing and often annoying behaviour that risked damaging an employee’s reputation, or that had the potential for harm - examples of such behaviour including doing wheelies around the works yard, pushing someone into a swimming pool, or passing out in the bathroom.

Sometimes general drunken rowdiness degenerated into the more offensive, including unacceptable language, breaking things, vomiting, or smoking in non-smoking facilities. It sometimes meant driving home drunk.

Conduct might not be damaging but left people feeling uncomfortable about the behaviour of those around them at a work function.

Dr McAndrew adds that sexual harassment at work functions can occur when too much alcohol relaxes inhibitions.

"This is reported as inappropriate comments and unwanted attention such as dirty jokes, unwelcome flirting, leering, commenting on body features, groping or ‘cuddling’," he says.

"In most assault and verbal abuse cases, there appeared to be a history that comes to the surface at the works function under the influence of too much alcohol."

The respondents were asked to share relevant workplace stories, with 187 employees providing valuable insight into the role played by alcohol at workplace social occasions, allowing researchers to build a catalogue of real-life incidents.

The researchers say this sends a clear signal to employers to act responsibly.

"There is a responsibility on employers to keep their employees safe at work events, even if work functions like the Christmas party are off-site or out of hours," Professor McAndrew said.

"The key to avoiding behaviour that could offend is responsible hosting and establishing appropriate drinking norms for social events."

For employees, the message is clear - know and keep to your limits and stay well within them.

For employers, understand your obligations - employers who provide or permit alcohol at work functions can be liable if employees or others are harmed as a result. Employer’s policies in relation to alcohol should be audited, with the assistance of competent legal counsel or advisors.

Misconduct occurring at work-sponsored social functions, whether on or off premises, will almost always be within the jurisdiction of the employer much like any other misconduct at work.

Under occupational health and safety laws employers must take all practicable steps to provide employees with a safe workplace, and that obligation extends to workplace-related social functions and occasions. Precise steps to meet these obligations will vary with circumstances, but generally employers should enforce safe practices, such as:

- Establish good drinking norms and stick to restrictions or limits on alcohol availability and consumption.

- Issue a reminder to their workforce that they are attending a work event and the usual standards of workplace behaviour apply.

- Adopt "good host" practices, including having a safe host and providing food and transport.

- And lead by example.

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