Oh my gosh – that could not have happened! We hope this is not something the business is saying after the end of year celebrations. Unfortunately, all too often a form of this reaction is all too common. In our last article, we looked at various control measures an employer can put in place to minimise the risk of inappropriate behaviour of employees at end of year or Christmas events which, in turn, minimise an employer’s exposure to subsequent legal claims and possible litigation. In this, our Part 2, we look at management of the aftermath of the event and what practical steps can be taken to minimise an employer’s exposure where an incident has occurred.
Quite often, incidents occur when the employer-controlled event is over. At the conclusion of the event at the controlled venue, employees will often continue the festivities at other venues where they can become quite intoxicated and unsavoury incidents result. In our previous article we gave some guidance on the steps that responsible employers should take to minimise their risk for incidents to occur at the company organised event. As it is often tempting for employees who are enjoying themselves to ‘kick on’, employers should also ensure the policy is broad enough to cover conduct that may bring the Company into disrepute even if it occurs outside of work, or work events. In addition, employees should be encouraged to leave the venue for home once the event is over. Or, if a more carrot than stick approach is favoured, providing the employees cab vouchers to ensure they have a safe means of transport home, can be an enticement to depart before an unsavoury incident occurs.
In the event that a complaint or inappropriate workplace matter is raised about alleged misconduct at a work Christmas event, it is of vital importance that responsive action is taken quickly by employers. Leaving it to mid-January to start an investigation or take action is often too late and lacks the procedural fairness required to be given to an employee. Such measure that ought to be considered, depending on the sensitivity of the issue, include:
- providing counselling and support services to the complainant;
- keeping the complainant informed as to the steps being taken to respond to the matter;
- cooperating with Police and notifying the relevant safety regulators (if warranted);
- investigating the matter fully either internally or via a third-party investigation service;
- notifying the employee against whom an allegation has been made and requesting their response; and
- suspending the accused employee until all the facts have been gathered and a course of action has been decided upon.
In approaching these matters, practical strategies employers should otherwise bear in mind when responding to workplace complaints include:
- avoid delaying the response time to allegations;
- never assume an allegation is frivolous or vexatious without making inquiries;
- consider all the evidence and then determine an appropriate disciplinary response;
- document clearly and comprehensively your records at each step of the response process;
- provide employees with counselling or an EAP services provider; and
- communicate effectively and appropriate when dealing with sensitive workplace matters.
It is also appropriate to have a clear social media policy in place as photographs or video taken ‘in the moment’ and posted to online social media platforms can embarrass or damage the reputation of employees and the employer alike. It is advisable that employers implement a policy that no images or video from the party are to be posted online by anyone other than the employer.
Finally, whilst inappropriate workplace conduct should be dealt with and punished accordingly, employers need to ask themselves whether the punishment fits the crime. It is therefore not only relevant to act in circumstances where a complaint of inappropriate behaviour is received, but to ensure the ensuing response is proportionate, fair and reasonable.
A common occurrence after the workplace Christmas party can be employees calling in sick the next day.
While employees are entitled to take sick leave if they are not fit for work because of a personal illness or injury, over-indulging to the point where they are unable to attend for work the next day may be a valid reason for disciplinary action.
In Avril Chapman v Tassal Group Limited T/A Tassal Operations Pty Ltd  FWC 4630, Ms Chapman was dismissed after leaving a voicemail for her employer admitting she had over-indulged at the Christmas party and was subsequently unfit for work the following day.
The Commission found that there was a valid reason for dismissal and held that Ms Chapman chose to ‘over-indulge’ the day before she was due at work to such an extent as to be unable to fulfil her obligations to attend for work the next day. However, the Commission ultimately held that the dismissal was unfair considering that this was the first time Ms Chapman had conducted herself in this manner during her 5 years of service with the employer.
We recommend any employer wishing to obtain advice in relation to an incident or complaint arising from an end of year event or Christmas party, takes appropriate and prompt steps to seek legal advice and assistance.
As this article will be our last publication for 2019 and we will resume our alerts from February 2020, we wish all of our clients and readers a wonderful Christmas/Holiday period and a happy New Year!
We trust that, within reasonable parameters, this season of Christmas and end of year functions will be well attended and thoroughly enjoyed!
If any further information in relation to any aspect of this alert is required, please do not hesitate to contact us. Otherwise, we are available and ready to assist should you require any advice or legal support this silly season.
This alert is not intended to constitute, and should not be treated as, legal advice