Party like it's 2019? Office Christmas parties in a COVID-19 world

Workplace Relations & Safety
Party bunting at a festive celebration.

As we crawl towards the end of what has felt like the longest year in history, there's a glimmer of excitement on the horizon for many employees – the end-of-year Christmas celebration.

Although Christmas parties are great for boosting morale, especially after a challenging year (well, two years – but who's counting?!), employers may now be asking themselves: is it worth the hassle and risk?

As well as the usual risks of office Christmas parties – intoxicated employees and the potential for inappropriate behaviour – employers now have to think about the COVID-19 related risks:

"Will people be allowed to dance and sing?"

"What about masks?"

"Do we need to organise awkward trivia games to keep people seated?"

"Will months of isolation exacerbate people's tendency to get out of hand at these events?"

In answering these questions, it's important to keep in mind that ultimately, employers are responsible for ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their employees and others in the workplace.

Work Christmas parties by state

Firstly, timing and location of the event are key, as most states and territories have different and changing requirements.

In New South Wales, for fully vaccinated people only:

  • singing and dancing are permitted indoors and outdoors (no need to organise activities during a party to keep people seated and occupied)
  • alcohol may be consumed while not being seated (avoiding the almost impossible task of ensuring people who are drinking stay seated); and
  • masks do not need to be worn.

However, density limits of one person per two square metres still apply, so employers need to be mindful of the size of the venue and the number of people attending.

In South Australia, the one person per two square metre rule is enforced for standing events. When people are sitting, three people per square metre are permitted in a venue. There is a limit of 150 people per venue with only 50 people permitted to dance at once. While singing is permitted, masks must be worn indoors (unless you are a performer). Importantly, employers must also have an approved contract tracing system that's independent from the one used by the venue.

In Queensland, which is currently under stage three restrictions, as of 17 December 2021 or when 80% of Queenslanders aged 16 and over are fully vaccinated (whichever comes first), proof of vaccination status certificates will be required, meaning entry to certain venues will be restricted to those who are fully vaccinated.

Eating and drinking while standing is permitted and there is no limit on gathering in public spaces. Fully vaccinated Queenslanders will need to follow the one person per two square metre rule for indoor venues or 100% allocated seated and ticketed capacity.

In NSW, once the state reaches 95% double vaccination, or on 15 December 2021 (whichever comes first), proof of vaccination will no longer be required by Public Health Orders. Density limits of one person per two square metres will still apply, but both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals will be able to enter hospitality venues.

Hospitality venues in NSW are also required to complete a COVID-19 Safety Plan, so they should be very familiar with COVID-19 protocols and requirements to ensure your event is conducted safely.

In Victoria, there are no density and capacity limits on hospitality businesses. Dance floors have also reopened, and masks are not required at venues. As in NSW, attendees at venues in Victoria will need to be fully vaccinated.

In Western Australia, there are no square metre rules or patron caps, however events with over 500 guests require the completion of a COVID Event Checklist, and all events should be registered with the WA Department of Health.

Tasmanian businesses can host 250 people in an "undivided space" indoors and 500 people in outdoor premises. The one person per two square metre rule applies. A checklist submission is required in this state too, however events at this capacity are not subject to approval.

In the Northern Territory, public health orders and lockdown/lockout requirements for the Greater Katherine and Robinson River area, including surrounding homelands, must be followed until 4 December 2021 and 1 December 2021, respectively, or subject to government announcements. Fully vaccinated residents in Robinson River and surrounding homelands are able to live normally within the lockout area. Residents of Binjari and Rockhole are currently in a hard lockdown.

There are different requirements depending on the size of the event and whether or not it is held inside or outside a Major Population Centre. Outside of lockdown areas, there are no limits on indoor or outdoor gatherings, but the square metre rules are still advised, as are limiting social events to two hours.

Consider also ensuring the following when planning your Christmas party:

  • hand sanitisers should be more accessible than the alcoholic beverages
  • attendees should check in to the venue on arrival; and
  • employees should be made aware of hygiene protocols prior to the event, such as staying home if unwell and regular hand washing. Everyone has probably memorised these by now, but a reminder doesn't hurt!

Virtual Christmas parties

Thinking about having a virtual Christmas party to avoid any risks? It's not that simple.

An employer's health and safety obligations extend to Christmas parties that take place in an online environment. In the same way that employers need to ensure the health and safety of their employees while they work remotely, these principles also apply to an online work function.

It's important to complete the necessary risk assessments, avoid excessive consumption of alcohol by employees, encourage employees to be careful with company property and ensure there is a clear, official finishing time for the event.

On top of this, it can't hurt to also bring employees' attention to your bullying and harassment policies and ensure they're reminded that inappropriate behaviour, even in an online environment, can result in consequences or termination.

Employers are advised not to let their guard down by underestimating the limited risks associated with a virtual event.

The Great Resignation factor

According to employment data, December is the most common month for people to leave their jobs.

Research has shown that some people even stay with an employer that they're not happy with, waiting until the end of the year to leave and make January a fresh start.

So now is the time to consider potential employee retention efforts, and to be prepared to commence any necessary recruiting in the new year.

Whatever readers choose to do to celebrate the festive season, we recommend that you familiarise yourself with the rules and any potential issues and liabilities, and plan accordingly.

We wish you a very happy festive season, and a safe and peaceful new year!

This article is part of a regular employment law column series for HRM Online. Information in this article was up to date as of November 2021.

All information on this site is of a general nature only and is not intended to be relied upon as, nor to be a substitute for, specific legal professional advice. No responsibility for the loss occasioned to any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any material published can be accepted.

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Angela  Knezevic

Angela Knezevic