Drawing to the end of the year it is a familiar practice for employers to facilitate celebratory functions for the benefit of employees. Work functions, although enjoyable, should be entered into with caution both on the part of the employee and employer.
In preparing a work function employers should be careful to ensure there is a responsible service of alcohol and adequate supervision. Employers should aim to take a precautionary approach towards organising events for employees. In the recent decision of Keenan v Leighton Boral Amey NSW Pty Ltd  FWC 3156 the Fair Work Commission drew attention to the fashion in which alcohol was served at a Christmas party and that it had been an aggravating factor in an employee’s inappropriate behaviour. The Fair Work Commission went on to further scrutinise the employer’s lack of appropriate supervision as an additional factor which led to the employee’s inappropriate behaviour.
Employers should remind employees of the company’s workplace’s code of conduct and grievance policies leading up to work functions. Notification of employee’s obligations in the workplace can help to reduce unsavoury behaviour at festive events. Equally as important is careful consideration to whether the conduct at work-related functions warrants dismissal. If an employer is considering the dismissal of an employee it is advisable to seek legal assistance in order to reduce the likelihood of future employment disputes.
Employers should look to prevent inappropriate behaviour at workplace functions rather than attempting to remedy employee complaints. Employers should consider the following options as they may help reduce the potential for workplace bullying, sexual harassment or unfair dismissal claims resulting from social events:
Employees should consider that during work functions they are still within the scope of the workplace. The view that the workplace extends to company social events can be an important part of adhering to an employer’s code of conduct. Especially where codes of conduct or policies are included in an employee’s contract, breach of these obligations may result in dismissal. If, however, an employee has been dismissed for behaviour outside work functions such as when employees continue to celebrate after an event has officially closed, the employer’s entitlement to end employment becomes less clear. Employees in a social setting not organised by the employer may be considered a ‘private activity’ and therefore would not constitute a valid reason for dismissal.
If you think you have been unfairly dismissed, you may consider making an application to the Fair Work Commission. Applications for unfair dismissal must be made within 21 days of the employee’s dismissal taking effect. Therefore, it is important for employees to obtain legal advice in the first instance of the employment ending.
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