Christmas parties and the investigation ‘hangover’: Practical tips for internal investigators

Work Christmas parties are a time for employees to celebrate, reflect and bond. We see organisations becoming increasingly diligent with putting in place processes to create fun, safe and respectful Christmas parties.

Unfortunately, the ‘silly season’ can sometimes lead to poor decisions and inappropriate conduct when Christmas parties, alcohol and co-workers are in the mix. Human resource professionals and sometimes investigators are left to deal with the misconduct ‘hangover’.

When a Christmas party investigation is required, some factors can make these investigations a little more challenging. Below are 7 practical considerations to make the ‘hangover’ a little more bearable for investigators when dealing with whatever arrives through their company’s complaints chimney and onto their seasonally decorated office doorstep.

1. Connection to work
  • A common issue that is faced by employers over the festive period is whether the misconduct occurred in the workplace, or whether there is a sufficient connection to work. While this question is easier to answer if the conduct occurred during a work Christmas party organised and paid for by the employer, the issue may require some preliminary enquiries (for example, if the conduct occurred during a social gathering immediately following a work Christmas party).
  • Some example preliminary enquiries might include: Where did the conduct occur? Who was there? Who was paying for alcohol or food? Was there an ‘afterparty’ endorsed by management? Was it on the way home from the work Christmas party?
    If the connection to work is unclear, consider seeking legal advice before making any disciplinary decisions.
2. Manage complaints promptly
  • If a complaint has been received or there is some ‘noise’ about certain misconduct at the Christmas party, it is important to act promptly.
  • While there may be logistical barriers, such as employees going on annual leave or the business may have a closure period, this should not deter management and investigators from commencing the investigation.
  • Acknowledge receipt of the complaint and seek to interview the complainant and any possible witnesses before they head off on holidays or memories fade.
3. Plan the investigation
  • If there are delays in starting the investigation, plan as much as possible. For example:
    • Identify who will be the investigator, case manager and decision-maker.
    • Put in place a contact person to be available to answer questions from participants and ensure support has been offered where appropriate.
  • Over the festive period, staff may be absent on leave, often for long periods of time. Find out the availability of relevant people and plan when you can speak to them.
  • Consider carefully when to notify participants about the investigation, including the respondent. It may not be necessary to inform participants, including the respondent, prior to going on annual leave.
  • Consider if there are key internal staff who can assist with obtaining or analysing specific information during the investigation and make requests as soon as possible. For example, relevant procedural information, surveillance footage, emails, work credit card statements, Teams/ chat messages, and text messages etc.
4. Consider the involvement of external venues
  • If the alleged conduct occurred at an external venue, consider whether you need to request access to any CCTV, or to speak with staff from the venue or transport company.
  • Consider speaking with the organisers of the Christmas party to check the arrangements in place with the venue. Sometimes company event organisers may have already requested details about availability of CCTV footage in the event it is required.
  • Be prompt and make the request as soon as possible, as often CCTV evidence is overwritten within a certain timeframe. Be precise about the location, dates and times.
  • If the venue refuses to voluntarily hand over the requested evidence, and it is material to the investigation, consider a court order to elicit evidence from an external venue. Seek legal advice on this from an appropriately qualified person in your state or territory.
5. Intoxication and memory
  • Christmas parties and end of year social events generally have one thing in common – alcohol. Unfortunately, alcohol can adversely impact the retention and recall of information and does not lend itself to accurate and reliable witness evidence.
  • Some interview tips for investigators when dealing with interviewees and the consumption of alcohol include:
    • Avoid using phrases about levels of ‘intoxication’. Rather talk about sobriety levels as this comes across less judgmental and more likely to elicit an open and trusting dialogue with the interviewee.
    • Ask each interviewee to rate their own as well as others’ sobriety levels. You could use a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being completely sober and 10 being heavily intoxicated).
    • Ask the interviewee to rate other people first and then ask the interviewee to rate themselves. It is less confronting to do it in a reverse order.
    • Follow-up by asking why they think they were at that level and what behaviours were observed.
  • Remember, being intoxicated does not make someone less credible. It just means their evidence may be less reliable.
6. Involvement of non-employees
  • It is common for Christmas parties and end of year social events to be attended by non-employees – such as spouses, partners, friends, contractors or even clients. These non-employees may be key witnesses in your investigation. There is an obvious risk that comes with involving non-employees in an investigation process in terms of confidentiality and willingness to abide by interview conditions.
  • When deciding whether to involve non-employees, consider first whether your findings will ultimately turn on a non-employee’s evidence. It may be that there is CCTV footage or some other form of evidence that could be sufficient in the absence of their evidence.
7. Procedural fairness and participant wellbeing
  • The length of an investigation can be significantly impacted by public holidays and leave during the Christmas period. Be mindful of the impact this will have on the overall fairness of the process and on participants.
  • Be transparent with stakeholders and manage expectations around the length of the investigation.
  • Understand any company procedures about interviewing staff when they are on leave, and in what circumstances this might be appropriate or necessary.
  • Be considerate about the timing of issuing allegations to respondents. For example, it is unlikely to be appropriate to issue allegations on Christmas Eve or before another public holiday.

Remember; planning, fairness and respect are integral to any workplace investigation. The logistical challenges and surrounding circumstances of a Christmas party investigation do not alter this. By approaching workplace investigations in the ‘silly season’ in this way, investigators will play a key role in contributing to a broader organisational culture of ‘speaking up’ by instilling fair and respectful processes. So, here’s to ensuring that the only hangovers resulting from your Christmas party can be treated with Panadol and a good night’s sleep.

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