On the first day of Christmas............Don’t let your end of year staff Christmas party lead to litigation at the start of the New Year.

Posted by Luke Mitchell on 10 November 2015
On the first day of Christmas............Don’t let your end of year staff Christmas party lead to litigation at the start of the New Year.

The staff Christmas party is an occasion to celebrate the year’s hard work and enjoy some social time with colleagues.  

For most employees and management, the event is enjoyed and work life goes on as usual afterwards.  However, sometimes a staff member (or members) choose this event to imbibe a little to much and end up performing the role of party nuisance. 

Occasionally this leads to the New Year starting with a dismissal.

In a case before the Fair Work Commission early in 2015, an employee was found to have been unfairly dismissed despite having engaged in appalling behaviour at the previous year's Christmas party.

The employee in question consumed a large amount of alcohol and went on to abuse and swear at management, sexually harass a co-worker and behave inappropriately towards several other staff members both at the function and then at an unofficial "after party" following the end of the staff party. 

The employer had advised staff prior to the party that the firm’s standards of conduct would apply at the Christmas party, which was an official work event.

Fair Work Commission vice-president Adam Hatcher acknowledged the behaviour of the employee had not previously been displayed in the workplace and his conduct was the result of his intoxication at the Christmas function and this was a "mitigating factor" in circumstances where the employer had allowed the unlimited consumption of alcohol at the function.

As Vice-President Hatcher put it: "An exacerbating factor in (the employee’s behaviour) was the manner in which alcohol was served at the function.  In my view, it is contradictory and self-defeating for an employer to require compliance with its usual standards of behaviour at a function but at the same time to allow the unlimited service of free alcohol at the function”.

It was also found that the firm’s standards of conduct could not be extended so as to apply in respect of behaviour engaged in at the unofficial after party.

The manner in which alcohol was served at the party, the lack of managerial oversight of behaviour during the party and inconsistencies in the treatment of the employee as compared to earlier incidents involving other employees were prominent factors in the Commission's reasoning.

It is a timely reminder for employers as the Christmas party season begins that careful consideration must be given to how the risk of misbehaviour is to be managed. Is it appropriate to allow the service of unlimited free alcohol? How will behaviour be monitored during the party? What processes are in place for the reporting and investigation of misbehaviour? 

Where the function will involve alcohol, employers should ensure that food and non-alcoholic drinks will be available in order to reduce the risk of people becoming heavily intoxicated. Management should also ensure that behaviour is monitored during the party and that appropriate steps are taken where an individual is showing signs of substantial intoxication or inappropriate behaviour. 

Failure to properly plan an end of year function can not only ruin the party – it can have significant ramifications and costs into the future.