Employment solicitor Jasmine Patel discusses a couple of recent cases which show that work and play do not always mix well

The Christmas work party; a time to let your hair down, dance stupidly and drink too much.  What happens at a work party; stays at the work party, right? Well, not quite and the recent cases of MBNA v Jones and Westlake v London Zoo serve as a helpful and timely reminder of this.

Mr Jones, a Collections Officer, working for the bank, MBNA, took things slightly too far on the day of the bank’s 20th anniversary party in November 2013. After licking and later punching another colleague at the party, he was held by the Employment Appeal Tribunal to have been fairly dismissed for gross misconduct. The Employment Tribunal had originally upheld his claim that he had been unfairly dismissed on the basis that his colleague, who had also not been well-behaved, was only given a final written warning. However the EAT determined that despite the difference in treatment of both employees this did not stop Mr Jones from being fairly dismissed. as their behaviour  was not sufficiently similar .

Interestingly, a difference in treatment was a key reason for an employment tribunal finding that Caroline Westlake, a London Zoo keeper, had been unfairly dismissed. Likely you might have enjoyed reading in the press this rather colourful case involving a love triangle between zookeepers at London Zoo (I’ve tried to find an official court report on this case but so far without success!). The press reported that at their Christmas work party, Ms Westlake glassed her colleague (and love rival) Ms Kate Sanders after the pair had fought over another zookeeper.  Ms Westlake was dismissed whilst Ms Sanders was given a final written warning. However the Tribunal considered the evidence upon which London Zoo based its decisions was not sufficent to determine who had in fact been responsible for the fight. This being the case the zoo could have dismissed both employees, or given them both final warnings. By dismissing Ms Westlake and not Ms Sanders it had not therefore acted fairly. Ms Westlake’s success at being found to have been unfairly dismissed was however something of a pyrrhic victory – it was reported that she received no compensation as the Tribunal considered that, had the zoo conducted a fair process both employees would have been dismissed for their behaviour in any event.

What Mr Jones and Ms Westlake had failed or perhaps forgotten to remember was, regardless of where and when an office party takes place, it is generally considered to be an extension of the working environment. While the judges reached different conclusions in the two cases and each case will turn on its own facts, caution is probably the safest policy. Work parties are unfortunately not a place where an employee’s behaviour can go unnoticed and serious consequences can arise if an employee does not check his/her behaviour. Unfortunately, the circumstances of a party; where the alcohol is flowing and normal work interactions appear to have gone out of the window, can lull employees into a false sense of security. Surely this can’t be “work” when your boss is screaming the words to Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas” at full blast and the secretary has fallen asleep under the table, can it? Sadly the answer is yes, it is as Mr Jones and Ms Westlake realised a little too late.