A Fair Work Commission decision last month about an employee’s misconduct at a staff Christmas party provides a timely reminder about what is acceptable behaviour at work-related social functions, and the importance of employers having the right policies in place.

In McDaid v Future Engineering and Communication Pty Ltd [2016] FWC 343, the employer successfully defended its decision to dismiss Mr McDaid after his misconduct at his employer’s 2014 Christmas party.

Mr McDaid had been employed by the company since 2008 and at the time of his dismissal was engaged as a project coordinator.  In 2014 his employer had arranged for the employees to enjoy a day of go-karting followed by a Christmas party that night at the employer’s premises (which happened to have a swimming pool).  Unlimited alcohol was available at the Christmas party as well as soft drinks and food.

Mr McDaid became inebriated during the Christmas party and became physically and verbally aggressive with one of his colleagues.  This began with Mr McDaid pushing and shoving his colleague a number of times before pushing him, fully clothed, into the company’s swimming pool.  Mr McDaid’s manager then approached him and asked him to leave which led to Mr McDaid fighting and injuring his manager.  Mr McDaid eventually left the premises and was stood down pending an investigation before he was eventually dismissed.

After considering the competing evidence about what actually happened at the Christmas party, Commissioner Williams accepted that each of the following events occurred and provided a valid reason for Mr McDaid’s dismissal:

  • Repeatedly haranguing a colleague in an aggressive manner, repeatedly pushing or poking him, and then throwing him into a swimming pool.
  • Failing to comply with his manager’s direction to leave the premises after the above incident.
  • Initiating a fight with his manager.

Commissioner Williams was also satisfied that the employer’s process was fair, as Mr McDaid was given a reasonable opportunity to respond to the allegations against him, and he was allowed a support person when being interviewed by his employer about the allegations.

As there was a valid reason for Mr McDaid’s dismissal, and the procedure followed by the employer was reasonable, Commissioner Williams upheld Mr McDaid’s dismissal.

Lessons for employers

The employer in this case was able to justify the misbehaving employee’s dismissal, but it is important employers remember that the validity of each dismissal turns on its own facts.

It is generally easier for an employer to defend an unfair dismissal claim if the employer can show that the employee failed to comply with a workplace policy.  Without a written and widely-known policy in place, an employer will have greater difficulty satisfying the Commission not only that the employee’s behaviour was unacceptable, but also that the behaviour warranted the employee’s dismissal.

Your next Christmas party might seem like it is months from being a priority but now, when things might be quiet, is the perfect time for employers to ensure that they have an appropriate policy in place setting out the limits of acceptable behaviour for staff at Christmas parties and other social events.

When adopting a social events policy, you should take care to:

  • consider carefully the employer’s position on appropriate alcohol consumption, noting that employers supplying large quantities of alcohol at work functions may ultimately be held accountable if staff have accidents or engage in misconduct;
  • provide specific examples of the types of behaviour that are not permitted, while at the same time ensuring those examples are not exhaustive in case something you did not contemplate happens next time;
  • ensure that the policy also applies to events not arranged by the employer, such as a client’s function, but at which the employer’s actions may still damage the employer’s reputation;
  • ensure that the policy is communicated to staff, and that they are reminded about the policy prior to major social events;
  • ensure that managers model the same behaviours required of other staff in the policy; and
  • review your policy regularly.