Employment Law: Lessons From the Ghosts of Christmases Past

Christmas Party Warnings

Christmas in July has come and gone, marking the end of another round of workplace celebrations, and the slow march back from solstice to silly season. During this intervening period of calm it is perhaps timely to remind employers and employees alike of the perils and pitfalls of the infamous work Christmas party.

Such events are intended to allow staff to mix and mingle while celebrating all that was achieved over the course of the year. Yet often it is also used as an excuse to take advantage of a bottomless bar tab, and an excess of social lubricant has been known to cause some slip-ups.

The recent case of Keenan v Leighton Boral Amey Joint Venture provides a stark illustration of what can happen when an employer fails to take the proper precautions before, during, or after a Christmas work party. Some may also learn lessons from Mr Keenan’s conduct.

The Keenan case involves an employee who helped himself to the unlimited supply of alcohol at a staff Christmas function before embarking on what could be described as a “rampage” of misconduct, swearing at managers and making overt sexual advances to female colleagues. The employer dismissed Mr Keenan in the New Year, but the Fair Work Commission (FWC) ordered his reinstatement on the basis that much of the conduct occurred “out of hours”.

The Facts

Mr Keenan was a ‘Team Leader’ for his employer, Leighton Boral Amey Joint Venture (LBAJV), a company which carries out road maintenance work in Sydney under a contract with the NSW Roads and Maritime Services. LBAJV held a Christmas Party at a hotel between 6pm and 10pm in December 2014. Before the party, the employees were warned that LBAJV’s policies and procedures were to apply during the function.

During the party (which was not supervised by any LBAJV manager), the hotel staff were obliged to serve alcohol in compliance with their responsible service of alcohol requirements. However, in practice, the service of alcohol was not appropriately restrained or regulated, to the point where later in the night the attendees were simply left to help themselves.

Mr Keenan certainly did “help himself”, downing around ten beers and one vodka and coke between the hours of 7pm and around 11:15pm. Read More.

By John Wilson, Managing Legal Director, Employment Law.

First published in Ethos, the ACT Law Society’s journal.