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Offensive Drunk Slips Employer’s Noose

6 July 2015

Offensive Drunk Slips Employer’s Noose

A team leader whose employment was terminated after he verbally abused and sexually harassed colleagues on the night of his office Christmas party has successfully challenged his dismissal. Vice President Hatcher of the Fair Work Commission found the dismissal harsh for the purposes of section 394 of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).

Following the end of year Christmas party an employee of Leighton Boral Amey NSW Pty Ltd (‘Leighton Boral’), Mr Keenan, acted inappropriately towards a number of his Leighton Boral colleagues. At the official Christmas party the conduct included:

  • repeatedly asking a female colleague for her number;
  • telling the company director and senior project manager to “F&*kOff”; and
  • speaking to a junior employee in a threatening and bullying manner, including by saying “who the F&!k are you? What do you even do here?

The inappropriate conduct continued following the official Christmas party at a separate private bar and included:

  • trying to touch the dimple on a female employee’s chin and remarking “I used to think you were a stuck up bitch”;
  • kissing a female colleague on the mouth and telling her “I’m going to go home and dream about you tonight”; and 
  • saying to a female colleague “my mission tonight is to find out what colour knickers you have on”.

Following an investigation into the incident, Leighton Boral terminated Mr Keenan’s employment.

The decision 

In determining that the dismissal was unfair, Vice President Hatcher delineated between the conduct at the official Christmas party and the conduct at the private bar, ultimately ruling that the conduct at the private bar could not be considered for the purposes of assessing the fairness of the dismissal. 

Accordingly, while acknowledging that some of the conduct at the after party constituted sexual harassment under the Sexual Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), the Vice President was not prepared to take it into account because it was not “in connection” with Mr Keenan’s employment. 

Having regard to only the conduct that occurred at the official Christmas Party VP Hatcher held that the dismissal was harsh for a number of reasons including:

  • his prior good employment record;
  • the isolated and aberrant nature of the conduct;
  • the fact that Mr Keenan was intoxicated as a result of alcohol consumption at a Christmas function where Leighton Boral had failed to monitor the responsible service of alcohol; 
  • the availability of alternatives to dismissal which were proportionate to the conduct involved; and
  • the severity of the penalty compared to Leighton Boral’s treatment of other employees with similar records.

Although Hatcher VP acknowledged that Mr Kennan’s conduct toward the younger employee who he bullied by saying “who the F&!K are you? What do you even do here?” constituted a valid reason for dismissal, Leighton Boral could not rely on this as they did not properly communicate this allegation to Mr Kennan, and give him an opportunity to respond.

What does this mean for employers?

  • Don’t cherry pick allegations of misconduct: employers should put all allegations of misconduct to an employee and provide an opportunity to respond. If there are multiple valid reasons for termination of employment, employers will be in a much better positon to defend their decision if the employee is afforded procedural fairness in respect of each allegation. 
  • Employers should act consistently with their legal obligations and polices: employers have an obligation under OH&S laws to provide a safe work environment for all employees at all work related activities (including Christmas parties). Accordingly, prior to such events, employers should remind employees of applicable polices and procedures, the types of behaviours that will not be tolerated and encourage responsible consumption of alcohol. During such events employers should also monitor compliance with these policies by ensuring responsible service of alcohol and where possible addressing instances of misconduct.
  • The delineation between work and private lives remains grey: the law with respect to misconduct out of hours is not black and white. If in doubt seek professional advice.
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