An employee woke up with more than a hangover when his employment was terminated following an eventful work Christmas party. The Fair Work Commission (FWC) has upheld the employer's dismissal of the employee who was intoxicated at the work function, behaved in an aggressive manner, and threw a colleague, fully clothed into a swimming pool. When told to leave the premises by the employer's General Manager, the employee refused and initiated a physical altercation that evolved into a fight.

In reaching the ruling, the FWC addressed the supply and consumption of alcohol at work functions and personal responsibility for conduct, notwithstanding intoxication.

Service and consumption of alcohol at work functions

In assessing the employee's unfair dismissal claim, the FWC considered criticism of the employer's actions in supplying alcohol at the Christmas party, noting that employers who supply alcohol without taking steps to ensure responsible consumption may be liable for the conduct of over-indulgent employees.

However, Commissioner Williams noted that "how much alcohol someone drinks is a choice they make and with that choice comes consequences. Society no longer readily accepts alcohol consumption as an excuse for bad behaviour and certainly not for physical violence.". The consumption of alcohol was not a defence for the employee's actions that led to his dismissal in this instance, and the dismissal was not harsh, unjust or unreasonable.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are a number of unfair dismissal cases which have considered the issue of drinking at work functions. Whilst the Commissioner erred on the employer's side in this instance, employers have also been criticised for providing the means for bad conduct, see, e.g: the 2015 decision of Stephen Keenan v Leighton Boral Amey NSW Pty Ltd (2015) FWC 3156. In Keenan, Vice President Hatcher found for an employee who had misbehaved at a work function, and following, and where the employer provided unlimited alcohol (see our previous post on the decision in KeenanCan you blame the booze? The fuzzy line between work and play).

Key takeaways

Whilst individuals are, ultimately, responsible for their consumption of alcohol and their actions whilst under the influence of alcohol, comments in this most recent case remind employers that they still have a legal duty of care to ensure responsible supply and service of alcohol at their work functions.

See: McDaid v Future Engineering and Communication Pty Ltd [2016] FWC 343 (22 January 2016)