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FWC: Alcohol and Work Function Don’t Mix
Many employers will have had festive celebrations throughout December and navigated responsible alcohol consumption at these events. Such festive celebrations are not limited to December and many opportunities arise throughout the year for workplace celebrations. While everyone looks forward to such events, they can quickly turn into a HR nightmare for employers, as workers are presented with an opportunity to “let their hair down”.
In a recent unfair dismissal case before the Fair Work Commission (the “FWC”), a manager was found to have been fairly dismissed after he allowed his team to drink alcohol at an off-site work function (read the case here).
In this case, a manager (the “Employee”) explicitly agreed to a chief executive’s request that no alcohol was to be consumed at a team lunch, as the workers were required to drive company cars back to the factory after the lunch. In addition, the company had a zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policy which provided that employees could not drink alcohol during work hours or drive company vehicles after drinking alcohol.
The Employee took his team out to lunch, allowed other employees to consume alcohol and consumed an alcoholic drink himself. After the lunch ended, the Employee told his team members to keep quiet about the fact that there had been alcohol consumed.
The Employee was later terminated for serious misconduct. He was confronted about the alcohol consumed at the party, to which he responded, “yes, they were drinking but we had finished work and it was not a big deal”. During the disciplinary process, the Employee did not provide an apology for his actions and continued to hold the view that he had done nothing wrong.
The FWC found that the Employee engaged in “wilful and deliberate behaviour” which was inconsistent with the continuation of his contract and, therefore, the dismissal was not harsh, unjust or unreasonable on the following grounds:
- The consumption of alcohol was a breach of the company’s drug and alcohol policy because at the time of the lunch, the employees’ working day had not yet ended. The Employee’s contract stated his work hours were from 8:00am to 4:30pm, inclusive of a lunch break. Although the Employee had finished work on the day of the lunch, he remained on company time.
- The FWC commented that not only was the conduct a breach of company policy, but it was also inconsistent with the Employee’s responsibilities in relation to work health and safety. The Employee allowed his team members to resume work at the project site and drive company cars after alcohol had been consumed. Further, his role as a manager meant that he was required to hold himself to a higher standard.
- The disciplinary response to the Employee’s conduct was warranted, as he “did not show any remorse for his flagrant disregard of the direction and company policy, nor did he display any insight into the seriousness of his conduct”.
- The company had given the Employee a lawful and reasonable direction not to drink alcohol at the event. The Employee failed to follow this lawful and reasonable direction.
It is recommended that employers have a proactive approach when it comes to managing social functions and clearly communicate standards of acceptable behaviour. Employers must ensure that work functions, particularly when off-site, are properly managed to minimise risk (see our previous article here for further advice on how to minimise risk). Critically, employers need to make sure that people are held accountable to policies and edicts issued by the employer, particularly those in leadership roles.