Work festivities bring perils aplenty

By James Fuller

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It's the silly season again but don't get too silly if you want to hold on to that job into the New Year.

As businesses across the Western Bay gear up for the annual slew of office Christmas parties, there are words of warning from employment experts. Let you hair down and enjoy yourself but don't forget you're at a work function.

Peter Crombie is partner in charge of the employment and civil litigation team at Tauranga-based law firm Cooney Lees Morgan. He says that just because it's a party does not mean all the rules go out the window.

"There are many cases of employees waking up the day after the office party and feeling very embarrassed about their behaviour from the previous night. They still have to go into the office on Monday morning of course and face their colleagues.

"You can have fun and be sociable without getting too intoxicated. I guess the need for moderation is the message."

Alcohol is a common denominator in many tales of shady shenanigans. Stories abound of employees drinking till they topple into the free vol-au-vents, tell the boss exactly what they think, or brush off dance moves that would have been best left under wraps.

Mr Crombie recalled the case of an employee dismissed for serious misconduct for their behaviour following a Christmas party altercation.

"There had been a fair bit of drink consumed and one employee reacted badly when he was splashed with some water by a colleague. The employee who had been splashed, by way of retribution, tried to push his co-worker into a big drinks bucket full of ice and water. The co-worker resisted and in the process ended up badly scraping his legs."

The following day the injured worker was so disgruntled he posted a comment online. It stated his colleague would not be able to respond to any business enquiries because of his drunkenness. He ended the message with a "burp".

"A customer of the business saw the post and made a complaint," said Mr Crombie. "That prompted the employer to investigate what had happened and they ended up dismissing the employee who had posted the comment.

"The employee challenged the dismissal on the basis the outcome had been premeditated. The ERA (Employment Relations Authority) ruled in the employee's favour. So the dismissal was deemed to be unjust but the damages awarded were reduced by 50 per cent because of the employee's behaviour which was damaging to the reputations of both the business and the other employee. Even though the dismissal was deemed unjust the employee was not reinstated.

"The moral of the story is that employers have to be careful when providing alcohol to staff at work-related functions," said Mr Crombie. "Employers have an obligation to be responsible hosts at work-related social events.

"Some employers now provide staff attending work-related functions with transport home afterwards at the employer's cost if they have been drinking. The boss handing out taxi vouchers to staff when they arrive at a social function is more common now as part of their responsible host obligation."

Before staff get into the festive spirit with too much festive spirit though, the onus of responsibility is not solely on employers said Mr Crombie.

"Employees also have an obligation to act responsibly at work-related functions. Even though misconduct might occur outside the workplace, if it is work-related, which would include misconduct at a work Christmas party, the employer would be entitled to investigate it and to take disciplinary action which could include dismissal if the circumstances warranted it," said Mr Crombie.

Max Mason, chief executive at Tauranga's Chamber of Commerce, said employers could avert potential problems by making socials less drinks focused.

"Employers can take an activity-based approach to Christmas events so drinking is not the primary focus," he said. "Going 10 pin bowling or Blokart racing or something like that introduces a fun, competitive element and means people are not just standing around drinking."

Mr Mason said employees should not forget that inappropriate behaviour could also impact their career prospects: "Managers will often be observing how people behave at these functions when they've had a few drinks. Are they the sort of people you would want representing your company? Could you trust them in an important role?

"As an employer you would be looking to see whether they could stand in for you at a cocktail party or a working lunch. Are they the right person to be promoted to a position of responsibility like that or would they say something inappropriate to an important client, having had a few drinks? They're questions a manager would be asking themselves and I think that applies across the board."

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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