We are rapidly approaching the time of year when employers have End of Year Functions for all their staff.  It is usually a festive time where employees receive accolades for good performance during the year, eat, drink and are merry.  Any failure to attend the function without good reason is usually considered to indicate a lack of commitment or team spirit.

These events usually only leave headaches and the unflattering memory of an overweight, sweating boss doing his John Travolta moves on the dance floor.

Unfortunately, in a number of instances, the combination of festive spirit and alcohol leads to unacceptable conduct.  Employees who have crossed each other during the year take the opportunity of re-living the moment with their colleague face to face in what is usually a loud and aggressive confrontation.  Violence is also known to occur…

At a company function in the UK, a manager thought it amusing when he kneed a fellow manager in the back of the leg.  What was initially slightly amusing became tedious when he kneed the same manager a second time.  On this occasion, the aggrieved manager responded by thumping the other manager in the face.  This led to a loud and aggressive argument that went on for some time.  The following week when everyone was back at work, the employer had to deal with the incident and did so by dismissing the employee for throwing the punch but only gave a final written warning to the employee who started the fracas.

The employee challenged his dismissal on the basis that he had been inconsistently treated because the other employee who had started the incident had not been dismissed.  The Employment Appeal Tribunal held that throwing a punch and kneeing someone in the back of the knee were different circumstances and different sanctions were appropriate and the dismissal was upheld.

The message to South African employers is that they too must treat their employees consistently.  Therefore if the debtors clerk, fuelled by alcohol, decides to make an unwanted move on a secretary, that incident must be treated in the same way as the incident involving the director who fortified by a number of shooters touches his secretary inappropriately on the dance floor.  There can be no favours for certain employees without risking an unfair dismissal claim.

It is recommended that employers warn employees that, whilst they are expected to have a good time at the function, they must ensure that they conduct themselves appropriately at all times or experience the pain of a disciplinary enquiry over and above the hangover.