The Fair Work Commission has confirmed that an employer validly dismissed an employee who pushed a co-worker into a pool and physically abused another colleague after becoming intoxicated at the company’s Christmas party.

What happened?

The employee was dismissed in March 2015 following his inappropriate behaviour at the employer’s Christmas party in December 2014.

The Christmas party included a function at the employer’s premises where unlimited alcohol was provided to all employees.  The employee quickly became inebriated at the function and began harassing a co-worker. The harassment including haranguing the co-worker about work matters and poking him in the chest before the employee pushed the co-worker (who was fully dressed) into a swimming pool.

Following the first incident, the employee was asked to leave the premises a number of times by the General Manager.  Instead of leaving the premises, the employee got into a physical altercation with the General Manager. 

In March 2015, the worker was dismissed by the employer following an investigation into his conduct. The employee criticised the employer for its actions in supplying unlimited alcohol but did not hide behind the booze as an excuse for his actions.

What did the Commission decide?

The Commission agreed with the employer that the employee had been justifiably dismissed.  The conduct of the employee at the Christmas party, including harassing an employee in an aggressive manner, pushing him into the pool, and instigating a physical altercation with the General Manager, were all valid reasons for his dismissal. The Commissioner stated that “how much alcohol someone drinks is a choice they make, and with that choice comes consequences.”

The Commission noted however that there will be circumstances where an employer takes no steps to ensure the responsible consumption of alcohol.  In those circumstances, the employer may be culpable for events attributed to the consumption of alcohol.  The example used was a drunken employee who is injured after falling down the stairs.  However, the Commission reinforced that employees who choose to drink will also be held responsible for their actions.  While alcohol may provide an explanation for an employee’s poor behaviour, it does not provide an excuse.

Lessons for employers

Employers may remember a 2015 decision where an employee successfully argued that his dismissal (for being intoxicated and inappropriate at the after party of the employer’s Christmas function) was unfair.  The difference in this case was that a connection to the workplace existed as the inappropriate behaviour was at the Christmas party itself.  Before making any decisions to terminate, the employer should be certain that the misconduct is sufficiently connected to the workplace to justify a dismissal.

Employers are also reminded they should take measures to regulate employee consumption of alcohol at work functions.

At any workplace functions where alcohol will be consumed, employers should ensure they:

  1. Communicate the start and finish times of any work function to staff, including the location of the work function (prior to the function);
  2. Communicate the company’s expectations about appropriate workplace behaviour at any functions, remind staff of policies and procedures and ensure that these expectations are adequately reflected in policies and procedures;
  3. Take adequate measures to monitor employees’ consumption of alcohol and behaviour, including ensuring employees can’t self-serve alcohol and responsible service of alcohol requirements are complied with; and
  4. If inappropriate behaviour does occur, consider whether the misconduct is sufficiently connected with the workplace prior to taking any disciplinary action.