It’s party time, so let your hair down… not your career

Although it may be the season to be jolly – even at work – that doesn’t mean you should get carried away. Two lawyers give us their take on the legal ins and outs of office parties

It’s party time, so let your hair down… not your career
‘Tis the season to be jolly – even at work. But that doesn’t mean you should let your hair down completely.

Managing your professional reputation during the festive season, can sometimes be challenging, what with navigating your way through the office Christmas party, out-of-hours conduct with colleagues and, for some, maybe even the potential for an office romance.

In this article, lawyers Kaitlyn Gulle and Joanna Hill from Lander & Rogers provide you with some tips to get the most out of the silly season without getting your career into trouble.
Putting the “fun” into work functions

While the end-of-year festivities are a great opportunity to relax and celebrate another year past, it’s important to remember that there are boundaries. Even though it's outside normal business hours and your boss is blistering up the dance floor, the end of year party is still a work function.

In fact, even your behaviour at an unauthorised after-party can have ramifications for your employment.

Just ask the ex-Telstra employee who was dismissed from her employment following a complaint by two female colleagues who were forced to witness her engaging in sexual acts with two male colleagues in the bathroom of their shared hotel room. 

Even though this incident occurred outside of business hours and in a hotel room that was rented privately by the employees, this was still considered to be a case of sexual harassment.

In order to keep the “fun” in the work function, stay on track for your next promotion and avoid post-function regret, keep the following tips in mind.

•             Think about how your behaviour may be perceived by colleagues and managers.
•             Be mindful about voicing concerns or making inappropriate comments about your employment or the people you work with.
•             Before the function, familiarise yourself with your responsibilities under the company’s bullying, harassment and discrimination policy.
•             Remember that your conduct at – or even after - the official work function can affect your employment.
•             Drink alcohol in moderation and make sure you eat.

Summer lovin’

Given the number of hours that professionals in Australia spend in the office each week, it is not surprising to see the statistics on workplace romances. Everyone knows someone who has been there, some successfully, some not so successfully, and some bordering on disaster.

While a mutual and consensual relationship between employees is generally no real concern for an employer, if the relationship starts to affect the performance of the people involved and/or impacts your colleagues or the workplace more generally, your employer may well take a legitimate interest in what's going on. This is more likely to be the case where:

•             The relationship involved two people that work closely together and hold different hierarchical positions;
•             The relationship leads to a loss of productivity;
•             Situations of actual or perceived bias arise; or
•             Affection is displayed in an inappropriate way.

The real potential for a workplace romance to affect your employment occurs when feelings are unrequited or a relationship between co-workers breaks down. Unwanted, unreciprocated attention may result in sexual harassment allegations and, even if the allegations are unfounded, your reputation can suffer to the extent that it affects your career.

Additionally, there is the risk of claims such as bullying, harassment or discrimination arising out of jealous or jilted ex-lovers behaving in an irrational and unfair manner towards their former co-worker and partner.

While relationships are essentially private, when yours involves a colleague, here are some tips to keep in mind:

•             If your relationship is ongoing, you may like to think about informing your employer and reassuring them it is consensual and you will always remain professional.
•             Consult your employer’s policy about workplace relationships if one exists.
•             Always remain mindful of your co-workers.
•             Avoid putting yourself in a situation where a conflict of interest or accusation of bias could arise.

At the end of the day…

This is a fun time of year, and it's possible to enjoy the festivities while maintaining your professional reputation. Just remember, while at work or a work-related function, your behaviour will be observed by all. So avoid the common pitfalls and let your hair down - not your career.

Kaitlyn Gulle and Joanna Hill are lawyers in Lander & Rogers' Workplace Relations & Safety group - one of Australia’s leading workplace relations and safety practices. 

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