With the Christmas break just two weeks away, many employers are having their end of year celebrations. Whilst those functions provide staff with the opportunity to relax and socialise in a setting away from the day to day constraints of the workplace, they also have the potential to provide major hangovers for employers. In recent years there have been a number of significant cases involving staff conduct at the work Christmas party, and the question of how much control an employer has over its employees' personal lives.
The highly published case of Carlie Streeter v Telstra Corporation is one such case. In the early hours of the morning after an office Christmas function, Ms Streeter and two male 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 that during the course of the evening, Ms Streeter had sexually harassed her by being naked and engaging in sexual intercourse with the two male employees in the hotel bath.
Telstra conducted an investigation into the complaint and subsequently dismissed Ms Streeter for serious misconduct. 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 Australian Industrial Relations Commission on appeal held that Ms Streeter had not been unfairly dismissed. The question of whether the party was a work function was a central issue. In respect of that point it was held that whilst the incident occurred outside of work and away from the workplace, it had significant implications for the staff at the workplace and 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 their actions take all the fun, camaraderie and spirit out of the traditional Christmas party, care must be taken to avoid a ‘Ms Streeter’ type situation developing. In that respect the adoption of some basic guidelines such as those below, will go along way towards avoiding the unwanted consequence of a workplace Christmas function.
Whilst the office Christmas party is a time to relax and enjoy the company of others, employers and employees should not forget that the party is an extension of the workplace at which appropriate standards and decorum should be maintained.
It is indeed a case of prevention being better than the cure.
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