In 2014 an employee attended a staff Christmas party at a hired venue. All staff were notified of the location of the party and timing (6pm and 10pm). During the official event the employee became intoxicated and proceeded to tell senior managers to “f**k off’ along with questioning the role of another manager and asking a female employee why she was talking to another employee, in an aggressive and bullying manner.
Once the official festivities concluded the group continued to an upstairs bar within the building but separate to the venue hired for the Christmas party. The employee continued drinking and made lewd comments and sexually harassed female employees. A manager intervened and accompanied the employee into a taxi home.
Upon return to the office the following week, a number of employees made comments and spoke about the inappropriate behaviour of the employee at the Christmas party. Whilst no formal complaint was lodged, management considered the nature of the events serious enough to warrant an investigation. At the conclusion of the investigation it was determined that the employee had failed to adhere to the standards of conduct expected from employees under internal policies, justifying his dismissal. The employee made an unfair dismissal claim.
In determining the claim, the Commission considered the availability of alcohol during the party to be an important factor. While the venue provided staff to distribute drinks, it was also possible for employees to help themselves to alcohol from an open container near the bar. The Commission considered it was contradictory for the employer to require compliance with its usual standards of behaviour at a function while allowing unlimited service of free alcohol, and found it was predictable that employees may consume an excessive amount and behave inappropriately.
The Commission concluded that the conduct at the bar, after the party had formally concluded, did not occur in connection with the employee’s employment. Additionally, it was found that a supervisor had made equally (if not more) serious comments to an employee at the party and the supervisor was not dismissed.
On this basis the dismissal was found to be harsh and unjust.
A decision as to whether the employee will be reinstated is pending.
Lessons for Employers
Prior to work functions, staff should be reminded of appropriate workplace behaviour in accordance with Company policies. Further, employers should exercise caution about serving alcohol at work functions, ensuring venue staff adhere to responsible service of alcohol requirements.
Additionally, management should allocate responsibility to individual(s) to monitor and intervene where necessary at functions with respect to employee behaviour that contravenes Company policy. Where an employee has been found to have breached Company policy, disciplinary action should be proportionate and consistent.
HR Legal can assist with reviewing your policies and procedures to ensure they adequately address behaviour at work functions and can provide advice on disciplinary action if policies are contravened during a function.
This article was produced by HR Legal. It is intended to provide general information only in summary format on legal issues. It does not constitute legal advice, and should not be relied on as such.