With the Christmas break just over the horizon, many employers will be in the middle of hosting their end of year functions. Whilst those events provide staff with the opportunity to relax and socialise in a setting away from the daily constraints of the workplace, they also have the potential to provide major hangovers for employers. There have been a number of reported cases involving staff conduct at, or subsequent to, end of year functions.
The case of Gera v Commonwealth Bank of Australia is one such reported decision. In this instance, Gera and a female colleague he was mentoring attended a Christmas lunch in early December. Both consumed wine over the course of the lunch before returning to Mr Gera’s hotel room where they continued to drink more wine.
The female employee lost consciousness at some point in the afternoon. When she later woke, Mr Gera was no longer in the room and she had sustained significant bruising in the intervening period. The female employee made a complaint to the Bank against Mr Gera who was subsequently dismissed for serious misconduct that had occurred after the Christmas lunch.
The case of Carlie Streeter v Telstra Corporation is another such case. In the early hours of the morning after an office Christmas function, Ms Streeter and two other employees had returned to their hotel room in an inebriated state. The following day a fourth employee, who was also in the room, made a complaint to Telstra about the conduct of Ms Streeter and the other employees whilst in the room.
Telstra conducted an investigation into the complaint and subsequently dismissed Ms Streeter for misconduct involving sexual harassment. Ms Streeter lodged an unfair dismissal claim on the basis that the alleged incident had not occurred at the workplace or during work time and did not amount to sexual harassment.
Ultimately, the Full Bench of the Commission held that Ms Streeter was not unfairly dismissed. The question of whether the events in the hotel room were part of a work function was a central issue. As to that point, the Full Bench held that whilst the incident occurred outside of work and away from the workplace, it had significant implications for the staff at the workplace. Thus in that instance, it could be considered part of the workplace and would require the employer to take appropriate action.
Some practical tips for employers
Whilst it is not suggested that employers by strict regulation take all the fun, camaraderie and spirit out of the traditional Christmas function, care must be taken to avoid aberrant behaviour developing. The adoption of some basic guidelines such as those below, will reduce the risk of unwanted consequences from a workplace Christmas function.
Prior to the function, the employer should remind all staff that whilst it may be a Christmas function and a time to relax and enjoy themselves, it is still work sponsored and there are appropriate and required standards of behaviour to be observed.
Employees should be made aware that if any inappropriate behaviour takes place, it would be subject to disciplinary action.
The employer should manage the service of alcohol in a reasonable and responsible manner and if necessary, be in a position to stop the service at the function generally or to those employees who have over indulged.
There should always be non-alcoholic or low alcohol options available for staff.
There should be appropriate food available throughout the function.
The employer should make sure it provides a process for staff to safely get home.
Whilst the office Christmas function is a time to relax and enjoy the company of others, such a function is an extension of the workplace and hence appropriate standards and decorum need to be maintained to ensure the wellbeing and safety of all concerned.
It is indeed a case of prevention being better than the cure.