OPINION: Christmas has arrived. I have been to my first Christmas party for the year and invitations to others are flooding in.
Office Christmas parties are a time for staff to let their hair down, enjoy themselves and relax at the end of what has no doubt been a busy and demanding year.
There are times however where employees take the informality of a social office gathering a little too far and quickly find themselves in hot water.
A recent Employment Relations Authority case concerning Angela Roskam provides some useful food for thought.
Roskam was employed by a company called Alsco in its Dunedin laundry. Tony Fallows was one of the managers there.
The employee claimed that as Fallows had a reputation for being an office "joker", she tried to see his actions in a humorous light.
However, starting with an incident at the staff Christmas party, Roskam clearly felt that Fallows had crossed the line of what was acceptable behaviour.
At the function Fallows dressed as Father Christmas. He used a bottle opener to form a "graphic and prominent phallic" symbol which he attached to his costume. While Roskam initially saw the funny side, it seems she eventually came to see things another way.
Further incidents were alleged in the months following the Christmas party including two occasions where Roskam alleged Fallows' pelvis made unwanted contact with her behind.
She decided to act.
Roskam complained to the police, to her employer, and then to police again about Fallows. She told her employer that she had been sexually harassed and referred to a number of incidents including Fallows' conduct at the Christmas party. An investigation was commenced and an independent investigator was engaged. Roskam was also referred to counselling.
Things did not pan out well for Roskam. The police were not prepared to take action and she resigned before the employer's investigation was even concluded.
She went to the Employment Relations Authority claiming that she had been constructively dismissed.
With the exception of Fallows' conduct at the Christmas party, none of Roskam's allegations were made out. In particular, the authority was not convinced about the veracity of Roskam's allegations regarding the ‘pelvis' incidents. Further it considered that the employer did properly investigate the allegations.
The ERA did however express concern about Fallows' behaviour as Father Christmas and commented that "having seen the photos . . . it is easy to conclude someone could have been offended".
The company was therefore advised that to condone such behaviour is risky and may have adverse consequences. Nevertheless, Roskam's claim of constructive dismissal failed and she received nothing.
Another cautionary tale can be found in the case of Tracy Cordiner, an employee of Virgin Media in Britain, who appears to have over-indulged at the work Christmas party.
As is normally the case, the event appears to have been well stocked with liquor. Cordiner, it would seem, took advantage of the offerings.
Things however got out of hand when Cordiner called a workmate a "black bitch" and another a "whore". She apparently capped off her evening by sexually harassing a male colleague.
Cordiner was dismissed. She challenged the dismissal in the Birmingham Employment Tribunal but not surprisingly, the dismissal was upheld.
Readers are encouraged to enjoy their Christmas parties. However behaviour outside the workplace can still lead to disciplinary action - all the more so when it occurs at a work function. Employers will generally tolerate the antics that go on at an office Christmas party but it is wise to remember that there is a line in the sand and it's dangerous to cross it.
What seems funny at an alcohol-fuelled party may seem highly offensive later. When the iPhones reproduce antics for the viewing of a sober employer at a later date, the joke may have worn thin.
- Peter Cullen is a partner at Cullen - the Employment Law Firm, and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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