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When Christmas Parties Go Wrong ....

Given the time of year, this week we look back at a 2021 case in which a work Christmas party set off a chain of events that were anything but festive. Our Adrian Twomey looks back at the case of A Beverage Company v A Worker, UDD2132, and highlights the key points to note.

The employer, a drinks company, organised a Christmas party in a hotel on 1 December 2018. The Complainant, a male employee to whom we will refer as "C" for the purposes of this article, and his colleagues were all invited to attend. The company arranged that the hotel would provide a discounted room rate for staff who chose to stay at the hotel that night.

A little over two months after the party had taken place, a female employee complained that she had been sexually assaulted in her hotel bedroom by C on the night in question. The employer responded by suspending C pending the outcome of an investigation. The investigation was completed on 20 March 2019. It concluded that C had sexually assaulted his female colleague.

Thereafter, C was required to attend at a disciplinary hearing and was dismissed for gross misconduct. He was permitted to make two internal appeals but both were unsuccessful. As a result, he initiated a claim under the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 (as amended). He lost his case at the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) and appealed to the Labour Court.

At the Labour Court, C argued that the incident had occurred outside of working hours and off his employer's premises. He argued, on that basis, that his employer was not entitled to dismiss him as a result of what had happened. He relied on a 2014 decision of the Employment Appeals Tribunal (Crowe v An Post, UD1153/2014) in which the Tribunal stated that:

“A dismissal for misconduct outside the workplace can only be justified where there is a sufficient connection between the crime committed and the employee’s work, in such a way that would render the employee unsuitable or capable of damaging the employer’s reputation. The guiding principle in cases involving misconduct outside the workplace is that the employer must be able to show a connection between the misconduct and the company's operational requirements.”

In C's case, however, the Labour Court noted that the alleged assault:

"... occurred in a hotel room where the original Complainant was spending the night after a Christmas party. The Respondent organised that party and paid for it. The Respondent invited the Appellant and the original Complainant to the party and went as far as re-arranging the original Complainant’s work schedule so that she would be free to accept the invitation. In addition, the original Complainant took up a discounted rate for her hotel room which had been negotiated by the Respondent with the hotel for the benefit of employees.

In all of those circumstances the Court ... concludes that the event was sufficiently connected with the employment as to mean that, for the purposes of the Act, it occurred in the course of employment to the degree that the disciplinary policy of the Respondent could reasonably be applied in order to address the complaint made to the Respondent by the original Complainant. In addition, it is the Court’s judgement that the alleged event in question had the potential to impact on employee relations in the workplace, to cause reputational and / or other damage to the Respondent and / or to risk bringing the Respondent’s name into ill repute (for example by reports in the press) and to cause the employer to genuinely lose trust and confidence in the Appellant.

Noting that C had not contested the allegation that he sexually assaulted a colleague on the night in question, the Court concluded that dismissal was within the range of responses that might reasonably be expected of a reasonable employer. On that basis, the Court found that the dismissal was not unfair and dismissed C's appeal against the earlier WRC decision.

The Court's decision is significant in that it draws a clear connection between the employment relationship and an incident that occurred outside of working time and outside of the workplace.

Those who require advice in relation to employment law cases or who need representation before the WRC or Labour Court can contact our Adrian Twomey.


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