It might be outside the workplace but your Christmas party is still covered by workplace law. Picture: iStock
It might be outside the workplace but your Christmas party is still covered by workplace law. Picture: iStock

How to get fired at a Christmas party

FROM naked romps to punching the boss, work Christmas parties have seen it all as workers risk their job and reputation in pursuit of end-of-year celebrations.

Following the recent high-profile ramifications for NSW Labor leader Luke Foley after bad behaviour at a 2016 Christmas party, Bennett & Philp employment and litigation expert Michael Coates shared advice for workers during the silly season.

Luke Foley, resigning after an ABC journalist accused him of sexual harassment at a Christmas party. Picture: Darren Leigh Roberts
Luke Foley, resigning after an ABC journalist accused him of sexual harassment at a Christmas party. Picture: Darren Leigh Roberts

He said work-organised and funded Christmas events were covered by workplace laws.

"Everything depends on the context in which the conduct occurs," he said.

"The same conduct in one context, for instance, may constitute sexual harassment and in another it won't."

Bad behaviour could lead to legal action and job loss.

Mr Coates gave the example of a female employee who was dismissed after "engaging in a naked romp in a hotel bathroom in front of other colleagues" after the office Christmas party.

Although the incident did not occur in the workplace or during the work event, it happened in view or in earshot of other employees so there was determined to be connection between the conduct and work.

Keep it clean at the work Christmas party. Picture: iStock
Keep it clean at the work Christmas party. Picture: iStock

Another instance that led to dismissal was when a male employee "became intoxicated, acted aggressively, threatened violence and then actually physically assaulted his boss" after his employer supplied free alcohol at a Christmas party.

"In this case, the aggressive behaviour was seen to not be 'out of character' as he had previously shown tendencies towards aggression and violence," Mr Coates said.

A case in which an employee successfully argued unfair dismissal, however, was one where a male employee told a director to "f*** off mate".

He was also heard to say "All those board members and managers are f*****, they can all get f*****" and was involved in five separate incidents of inappropriate conduct with female co-workers.

In one, he grabbed and kissed a co-worker and commented 'I'm going to go home and dream about you tonight', while in another he asked a co-worker the colour of her underwear.

"Not surprisingly, this fellow was dismissed from employment on grounds of breaches of company policy," Mr Coates said.

"Interestingly though, he was successful in claiming that he was unfairly dismissed."

Don’t let your work event become a night you regret. Picture: iStock.
Don’t let your work event become a night you regret. Picture: iStock.

In coming to that result, the Fair Work Commission determined:

• No manager was tasked with supervising the overall running of the Christmas function or the conduct of staff - the employer left that to hotel management;

• Some of the events, including the sexual harassment, happened at the after-party and was thus deemed not sufficiently connected to work;

• There were other actions apart from dismissal that the employer could have taken;

• There were issues with procedural fairness as to how the company managed the investigation and disciplinary process.

Mr Coates said in cases such as these, the fall out was worsened if an incident was photographed or filmed then shared on social media.

"The effect of such publication could well do significant damage to the reputation of the employer and of employees and may have significant adverse ramifications for the amateur cinematographer," he said.

"Employers should have a detailed social media usage policy that applies to all staff to clearly set out how their staff can and can't use social media in connection with work.

Think twice before photographing or filming shenanigans at a work event. Picture: iStock
Think twice before photographing or filming shenanigans at a work event. Picture: iStock

"An employer might also be held accountable for uploaded material if an aggrieved employee successfully claims that their employer failed to prevent something that happened at a workplace event from being shown or published to others, resulting in embarrassment, ridicule or distress.

"For employees, I would suggest leaving your mobile switched off in your pocket or bag to make everyone's end-of-year function a bit more enjoyable and avoid recriminations later."

Corporate Dojo founder and HR specialist Karen Gately said messy work Christmas parties could also have "devastating" consequences for a worker's reputation.

"Of course, we all have accidents, but if you fall over or stagger while drinking, it's not a good look," she said.

"Vomiting at the Christmas party, especially where people can see you, is likely to be a problem for your reputation.

"Expect to be highly unpopular come Monday if you struggled to hold down your alcohol and dinner."

Ms Gately advised anyone who tended to get angry when drinking to avoid alcohol altogether.

"No one likes the person who gets aggressive and spoils everyone's fun," she said.

"If you have a gripe with another member of team, choose to stay away from them if you can't keep things civil.

"It really does make me laugh how often people choose to give their manager or CEO constructive feedback, while at the Christmas party.

"While of course being open to feedback is important the reality is most people aren't that open to hearing it when you're slurring your words."



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