Responding to Bad Behaviour at the Christmas Party

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 27, 2019

It's no secret that both the good and the bad can be on display at the annual work Christmas party. While smiles and good cheer can and should be the main features at an end-of-year bash, some unfortunate behaviour can also arise. 

Alcohol abuse, sexual harassment and aggressive behaviour are just some of the less savoury possibilities. But despite the instinct to punish personnel who wander astray, it is vital that employers respond to Christmas misbehaviour in a manner which is both reasonable and proportionate.

Alcohol abuse/intoxication

For many workers and business owners, the idea of a Christmas party with zero alcohol is a rather bleak one. Secret Santa, sausage rolls and a few cool beverages tend to be part of the workplace festive tradition. Yet the results of intoxication at the work Christmas party are the stuff of unfortunate legend. Raised voices, wild dancing, lewd comments, recriminations and unwanted advances are just some of the potential products of the wrong mix of drinks.

Moderation is everything when it comes to the supply of alcohol at the end-of-year event. Plenty of forewarning to staff about rules and refreshments will also help to keep proceedings on an even keel.

sexual harassment

The well-known reduction of inhibitions caused by alcohol consumption can lead to one of the more serious Christmas party side-effects: sexual harassment. The working year is over, the relief is palpable and perhaps a perceived flirtation is taken in an unacceptable direction. Behaviour that would certainly be shunned in the ordinary workplace can seem 'up for grabs' in the glittery glow of the Christmas party lights.

Alcohol can of course be part of the unacceptable sexual harassment situation: yet sometimes just the high spirits of the Christmas party itself can lead to an array of unacceptable approaches and behaviours.

Aggressive behaviour 

As with misconceived flirtation, the office Christmas party can bring out the worst forms of aggressive behaviour. Personal tensions can simmer during the year, with the relief of the office party creating an unleashing of built-up emotion. Add alcohol to the mix, and there is a strong possibility that arguments, fights and even assaults will emerge.

Case study - keeping things proportionate 

The case of Keenan v Leighton Boral NSW Pty Ltd [2015] FWC 3156 reflects the need to act swiftly in response to Christmas party problems - yet to do so in a fair and measured way.

In this case, the Fair Work Commission was faced with the troubling situation of an employee becoming intoxicated and proceeding to swear, abuse and provide unwanted advances through the night. He was dismissed. However, the worker's excellent work record, combined with the employer's dubious provision of free-flowing alcohol, saw Keenan's dismissal overturned by the FWC.

In particular, it was noted that any disciplinary action needed to be reasonable and proportionate to the condemned behaviour. The limitless alcohol situation certainly did little to assist the employer's case. And while the employee's drunken behaviour was a nightmare of ill-conceived comments, actions and insults, the FWC noted that his long and notable record of service required the employer to be reasonable in response.

It is certainly a cautionary tale to employers supplying alcohol at Christmas parties. If no limits are placed upon the type and volume of alcohol consumed by workers across time, then a large part of the fault in such cases will no doubt be seen to rest with employers.

managing the christmas party risks 

When it comes to organising the annual Christmas party, it pays for employers to plan the event well in advance. All employees should be aware of the order of proceedings, times and expectations at the party. Employers should plan food and alcohol extremely well, working out how the judicious service of alcohol will be managed through the night.

Providing security staff on the night can also be an excellent way to keep emotions and good cheer under some sort of control!

The Keenan case certainly demonstrates the importance of undertaking a thorough and considered investigation before taking serious disciplinary action against an employee. In unfair dismissal claims, the Commission will not hesitate to find in favour of the applicant where the employer failed to apply proportionate disciplinary action. If you would like to ensure your investigation process is considered and enforceable, WISE provides full and supported investigation services, as well as investigation training for your staff. 

Dealing with Pornography in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, November 21, 2019

Unsurprisingly, the access to pornography can be extremely problematic in the workplace. Not only does the access to pornography at work open up a minefield of possible harassment and other sexually motivated complaints, it contributes significantly to presenteeism (where staff are physically present but not concentrating on their jobs).

Indeed, according to a report in the Financial Times, 45% of daily viewers of popular pornography compilation site Pornhub, accessed the site between standard business hours of 9am to 6pm. In addition, staff accessing using company resources to access unauthorised websites, can pose a significant cyber security risk to businesses.

Given the almost ubiquitous presence of smartphones and tablets in the workplace, it is becoming increasingly difficult for employers to address and manage the increasing issues related to pornography access in the workplace. Nonetheless, care and consideration must be taken when investigating allegations of employees having accessed pornography while at work. 

what does the fair work commission think?

The Australian employment relations tribunal has made its position on pornography being accessed in the workplace clear. For example, in the decision of Allan Croft v Smarter Insurance Brokers Pty Ltd (U2016/4415), Commissioner Cambridge commented that: "particularly if such conduct occurred in breach of the clearly stated and understood policy of the employer, an employee could expect to be disciplined or even dismissed for deliberately accessing, downloading and/or storing hard-core pornographic material on the employer's equipment, whether such conduct occurred within or outside of the ordinary hours of work"

It follows that there is clear support for termination of employment on the basis of accessing pornography - but only if there is a clearly drafted behaviour policy which explicitly prohibits the accessing of pornography on work equipment or during work hours. 

What role does company policy play?

It is not sufficient for an employer to simply discipline or dismiss an employee for accessing pornography at work, without having provided adequate notice of the company's position on pornographic materials.

This means that employers should have in place a clearly articulated and freely available policy on the topic of unacceptable workplace behaviour and conduct. That policy should explicitly set out what is considered improper use of company equipment, technology and Internet access. There should also be a statement to the effect that the use of company equipment and resources should be confined to work-related activities.

In addition to drafting the policies, it is essential that employees are both made aware of and understand them. Ideally, there should be regular training on what is considered to be acceptable behaviour in the workplace.

Action by employers 

Notwithstanding the support of case law, employers should still tread with caution in relation to disciplining or terminating employees for accessing and/or downloading pornography.

It is crucial that employers not act rashly by summarily dismissing staff without following due investigatory processes. When making decisions in relation to discipline or dismissal, the procedures set out in the relevant company policy must be adhered to. This will best protect the employer against subsequent proceedings for unfair dismissal.

Although employers should not deviate from usual investigation practices when dealing with pornography in the workplace, it is important that this type of behaviour is dealt with swiftly and decisively. This is in part because other employees who may be sent or otherwise exposed to pornography could also make claims for sexual harassment.

Addressing employee conduct regarding matters of internet usage and technology is a challenge for all modern workplaces. If your organisation requires assistance in enforcing policies to ensure matters of misconduct are dealt with in a fair and considered manner, WISE delivers training as well as investigation services to help you meet the challenges that arise in contemporary workplaces.

Audio Recording or Written Statements?

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, November 07, 2019

Appropriately recording evidence is a crucial part of workplace investigations.

For investigators, this can cause a significant dilemma as to whether it is preferable to rely on written statements, or obtain audio recordings of interviews conducted during the investigation.

Here are a few of the main considerations for each method.

Audio recordings 

An audio recording is effectively a verbatim record of everything that is said during the interview process. It may be particularly useful to conduct audio recordings during initial witness or party interviews, so that these can be transcribed and used to confirm the evidence which has been gathered.

It is essential that all parties are made aware that interviews will be recorded. This should also assist in setting expectations that nothing said during the interview can be considered "off the record".

Significant advantages of audio recordings include:

  • Simplicity. It is easier for the investigator to conduct an interview without having to take contemporaneous notes. The practice of taking notes can be disruptive to the interview process, breaking both the interviewer's and the interviewee's concentration and the "flow" of the conversation.
  • Creation of an accurate record. Written statements may be considered to be ambiguous or open to interpretation - however an audio recording is fairly difficult to refute.
  • Reinforcing significance of the process. If an audio recording is produced, involved parties can be left in no doubt that an investigation is being taken seriously.
  • Flexibility. If it is difficult to arrange for a party to be interviewed in person, modern technology means that interviews can be recorded by telephone or video. This introduces greater flexibility into the recording process.
It is important to remember however, that it can be easier to contest what is recorded in a transcript, rather than in a written statement which the interviewee has been asked to sign.

written statements

By contrast, a written statement is a document which is produced as a summary of the contents of the interview. Generally, it is produced after the interview, based on notes taken by the interviewer or an offsider. 

Although it is extremely unlikely that every word said or every implied nuance during the interview will be recorded in a written statement, a key advantage of this type of evidence gathering is that witnesses will have the opportunity to review their written statement. The interviewed party can then sign the statement, or refute the contents.

In order to be effective, the statement should be produced as soon as possible after the interview has concluded, while it is still fresh in everybody's memory.

procedural requirements for interviews 

When determining whether an interview should be supported by a written statement or an audio recording, it is important to bear in mind that certain organisations or agencies have policy and/or procedural requirements preferring one method of evidence collection over the other. Further, in the event that a witness prefers not to have the interview recorded, an investigator cannot rely on this method.

The interviewer should give thought both to the personality of the interviewee, and the subject matter of the interview, when determining the best method. If it is intended that the interview proceed on a casual or somewhat informal basis, relying on a recording is likely to be considered overkill.

Audio recording is also reliant on technology functioning properly. In the event that a recording device malfunctions or does not record properly, there is a risk that the interview will not have been recorded at all. This could mean that the entire process needs to occur again - or alternatively, that there is no evidence supporting the interviewing process.

THe importance of flexibility in investigations

Unless company policy dictates one method of evidence collection over the other, this is always a decision that should be made based on individual circumstances.

As is generally the case in workplace investigations, there is never a "one size fits all" approach that can be utilised on every occasion. Investigators must be prepared to make an assessment on which method of evidence collection is appropriate on a case-by-case basis.

WISE investigators have extensive experience in conducting investigative interviews and collecting evidence, whether by audio recording or written statement. If you require established procedures to be followed or would like flexibility during the investigation process, WISE offers investigation services to assist. Additionally, if your organisation is seeking advice and training on interview techniques, WISE offers short courses and resources to upskill your staff.