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Do your Year end Office Parties 'Get Out of Hand'

Ivan Israelstam

It’s approaching that time of year when people at the workplace forget about the rules in their need to hold parties and let off steam. I’m not saying that year end parties are bad; they can be a very important means of dealing with year-end tensions and of cementing employee relations. However, too often, such parties are misused as an excuse to go beyond what company rules and the law allow.

Due to the relaxed atmosphere created by the social nature of the event, music and alcohol, employees and management alike often make the mistake of behaving in ways that they would not do during normal working hours. This they do for many reasons including the mistaken beliefs that:

  • Such behaviour is normal at parties
  • nobody will mind because it is year-end
  • people are more tolerant at parties
  • I can just say ‘I was drunk and meant it as a joke’
  • The party is outside working hours and/or away from the office so the rules don’t apply
  • On Monday nobody will remember what I did.
These mistaken beliefs can turn a dream party into a nightmare for both employees and for the employer. This is because:
  • Employees and management are not, according to labour law, allowed to mistreat each other at company functions even if these are held outside normal working hours
  • Many people will not tolerate mistreatment even if it happens at a party and is ‘meant as a joke’
  • If the victim of the mistreatment has had a stressful year the mistreatment can be the last straw that causes him/her to react strongly
  • Some employees are looking to change jobs at year end. Being ‘forced to resign’ due to ‘mistreatment’ is a great way to earn an extra bonus by taking the employer to the CCMA.
In the case of Payten vs Premier Chemical Industries (1999, 8 BALR 922) the CCMA arbitrator found that:
  • Ms Payten may have flashed her brassiere at colleagues at a staff year-end function
  • Her colleagues had removed her shirt, fondled her breasts and attempted to remove her shorts
  • Although Ms Peyten had possibly done something to provoke the sexual harassment her colleagues had not been justified in their behaviour which they claimed was a joke
  • Their behaviour amounted to serious assault on Ms Peyten’s person and dignity
  • When Ms Peyten complained about the incident to her manager he fobbed it off as an over-reaction
  • The employer failed to investigate the matter and to take it seriously
  • The employer continued its attack on Ms Peyten’s dignity during the arbitration hearing
  • The applicant’s resignation amounted to an unfair constructive dismissal
  • The employer was required to pay the employee 12 months’ remuneration in compensation and also had to pay her legal costs.
While the details in this particular case (as to what extent the employee displayed her underwear) are scanty the arbitrator was not willing to tolerate what others may well have considered as over zealous behaviour. This serves as a reminder to employers that:
  • Labour law strongly protects employees from any behaviour that can be viewed as unfair regardless of the circumstances under which it occurs
  • Employers are legally required to act quickly and firmly in all cases of alleged mistreatment of employees
  • Staff parties are here to stay and should be encouraged but the flow of alcohol and other substances should be controlled
  • While a damper should not be put on the festivities all employees should be told very clearly that they will not be allowed to have fun at the expense of others
  • Complaints should be treated very seriously even if it appears that they are exaggerated.

lvan lsraelstam is the Chief Executive of Labour Law Management Consulting. He may be contacted on 0828522973 or on e-mail address:

Our appreciation to Ivan and The Star newspaper for permission to publish this article...

 

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