New Zealand Law Society - The many follies of Christmas parties gone wrong

The many follies of Christmas parties gone wrong

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As the year draws to a close, annual Christmas parties will be a relief and jovial time for some and disaster for others. Colleagues and alcohol mightn’t be the best combination for some, so LawTalk journalist Sasha Borissenko decided to canvass the issues that might arise as a result of debauched behaviour.

In March of this year, the Herald on Sunday reported a female lawyer was on leave after allegedly groping a junior male colleague at a work Christmas party. She was purported to have then made explicit sexual remarks to the group on a microphone.

In May 2004, a large firm held a staff function at a top central Auckland restaurant. A waitress spotted a young male lawyer steal about $8 from the tip jar on a desk behind the counter. Security cameras later confirmed the man’s identity. Management notified the police and dealt with the matter by ending the man’s employment contract.

Although the United Kingdom case of Judge v Crown Leisure Ltd [2005] EWCA Civ 571 didn’t involve lawyers, an employee claimed at a Christmas Party his manager told him that within two years he would double his salary.

The employee resigned when the “promise” didn’t come to fruition and claimed constructive dismissal. The Employment Appeal Tribunal rejected the claim and accepted that the promise was made in the context of the “convivial spirit of the evening,” therefore it was not contractual and not enforceable.

Ross Jamieson, who set up New Zealand’s longest established employment relations consultancy, Jamieson Partners, in 1984, has conducted over 750 cases in mediation, tribunals, arbitration, and labour and employment courts.

With almost half a century of experience under his belt, the Wellington advocate says he can remember numerous cases that have come as a result of Christmas party shenanigans.

“There’s a great danger that people get well and truly lubricated. They might have a go at their boss or colleagues, for example.”

An employee might have stress that has been pent up over the whole year and all they need is an opportunity involving alcohol to make a stupid decision, he says.

He remembers a case where an employee, who worked at a gym, punched his boss at a Christmas party, and found he didn’t have a job the next day.

In the case, the fact that the event occurred outside of work was irrelevant, he says.

Whether it be a formal Christmas party on site or a spontaneous one off site, if a company’s reputation is brought into disrepute, “you could find yourself in trouble if things go wrong”, he says.

“Beware that you are on show as an employee at these dos. They can have consequences that can jeopardise your livelihood if you go too far.

“The first tip is, if you do something stupid it can cost you your job. Secondly, be wary of losing too many inhibitions and jeopardising relationships whether that be man and man, woman and woman, woman and man or man and animal.”

Rainey Collins Lawyers partner Alan Knowsley says he deals with at least one employment law grievance resulting from office Christmas parties per year.

He has seen a lot of unwanted groping cases, and many senior people doing very stupid things in his time, he says.

It is very easy to blame the alcohol, but people need to remember to be professional and not entirely “let their hair down” so-to-speak, he says.

He recalls an incident where a manager of a chain store put on Christmas drinks in the store thinking the outside area was too small. Despite covering the windows with paper, the man was dismissed for breaching his employment obligations.

“While it might seem over the top, people must remember to comply with employer policies. A lot of employment contracts prohibit any alcohol on the premises, for example.

“Be aware that you are still being employed at whatever event it might be. You should not do things that you would otherwise not do, or do things that fall short of the professional standard. You don’t want to wake up and be embarrassed.”

Employers have a responsibility too, he says. Plenty of food and limited alcohol should be provided, as well as offering ways where people can get home safely. There was a case where an employee drove home drunk and the employer was held accountable, he says.

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