With the Christmas party season upon us, the restaurants and bars of Canberra are filling with workers for the annual festival of office small talk. While many will be dreading the prospect of spending a few hours with their colleagues, others see it as an opportunity to loosen their ties and have a few drinks.
The work Christmas party may seem detached from the rest of the workplace calendar, where normally unacceptable workplace behaviour will be brushed off as just another seasonal excess, but come Monday morning, some workers may find themselves at risk of losing their job.
Director of Employment Law and Investigations at BAL Lawyers Gabrielle Sullivan says workers need to be aware that what happens at the work Christmas party can have serious consequences.
“Although people are out of the workplace where the lines between your work life and social life may seem blurred, if what you are doing adversely affects how you do your job or your employer’s business, you could be in trouble,” Sullivan said.
January is a busy time for employment lawyers with a spike in dismissal cases bought by employers seeking to dismiss workers for poor conduct and employees disputing such dismissals.
Unprofessional, discourteous or unlawful conduct are the cause of many employment issues and Sullivan says many people don’t realise that even though they are off-premises, they still represent their employer. She cites a case where an employee was successfully dismissed after urinating off a restaurant balcony.
“The party had finished, the music was off and people were leaving but the booking was in the business’s name and the employee’s actions, urinating onto diners below, had real potential to damage the reputation of the business.
“Poor conduct directly connected with your employment either through the premises booked, an event you attend or even your identification can reflect on your employer,” Sullivan said.
Hidden tensions can surface and manifest as repressed rage after a few drinks.
“Pushing your boss into a pool or throwing a drink in your manager’s face is going to affect your workplace relationships and your employer can make a legitimate case that you can no longer continue,” Sullivan said.
Let loose by alcohol and dim lighting, some workers take the opportunity to form relationships with their colleagues. Sullivan says workers are entitled to form relationships but they must be respectful and mutual.
“It makes no difference if it is Christmas and alcohol is involved, or people are off the premises, everyone’s conduct should be held to the same standard as if they were at work. If behaviour is disrespectful, people need to think twice,” Sullivan said.
In circumstances where an employee makes unwanted sexual advances to another worker, any power differential or conflict of interest may make it difficult for that person to reassert themselves back at work.
“Some people think that because it is Christmas they are entitled to behave differently but everyone still needs to be respectful and sensible,” Sullivan said.
While a more junior worker may be reluctant to make a complaint, Sullivan says that sometimes colleagues will make a complaint to HR on behalf of the worker. “The MeToo movement has seen a shift,” Sullivan said.
While employees need to check their behaviour, Sullivan says employers have responsibilities, too. Employers can be held responsible for ensuring the health and safety of staff and must take all steps to ensure this, even at the Christmas party.
“If the action of one employee causes distress to another employee, you have a work health and safety problem. You can’t provide food, alcohol and a venue and step back. Employers should take proactive steps to ensure the health and safety of their employees.”
Not all situations need lead to termination of employment; there are a range of options including mediation and training, and Sullivan says she does see some heavy-handed responses from employers.
“There is some moralising going on. Employees should be entitled to a private life as long as their actions do not affect their job or their employer, but generally speaking, people do need to think carefully about their behaviour. You do not want to be on the wrong side of HR in the new year.”
If you have an employment law matter, contact Gabrielle Sullivan at BAL Lawyers. If you are an HR professional and would like to attend the next Breakfast Club – the BAL Christmas Special with Gabrielle Sullivan – visit HR Breakfast Club.
WHERE: BAL Lawyers, Level 9, Canberra House, 40 Marcus Clarke Street, Canberra City
WHEN: Friday, 20 December 2019, 8:00 am to 9:00 am
COST: Complimentary. Light continental breakfast, coffee and tea supplied from 7:45 am.
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