As the festive season gets into full swing one-in-five employees have seen office parties turn sour when people drink too much, a survey says.

A University of Otago survey of 1000 employers and employees in New Zealand found 20 per cent of employees had seen festivities fall foul when staff over-indulged at work events, while 25 per cent of employer respondents reported dealing with inappropriate behaviour.

Almost three quarters of the respondents reported that work social functions, both on and off-site, had alcohol available, which was 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.

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

The study was led by Ian McAndrew, from the Department of Management at Otago's Business School, who said that 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," he said.

"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."

Alcohol at work functions has damaged careers and relationships.

McAndrew said sexual harassment at work functions could occur when too much alcohol relaxed 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 said.

"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 researchers said there was a clear signal to employers to act responsibly.

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"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," 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 was to know and keep to your limits.

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.