Christmas parties often bring out the worst in staff. In this case, it put this teacher on a ‘not to be employed’ list.
Work Christmas parties are (ordinarily) a great way to relax and celebrate with colleagues at the end of a busy and successful year. The combination of high spirits, strong spirits, an offsite location, and the upcoming work-free period often leads to employees feeling too relaxed. Unfortunately, some employees forget appropriate and respectful standards of workplace behaviour are not relaxed simply because the atmosphere of the Christmas party is.
In a recent decision (public access will be made available in the coming days), Commissioner Murphy of the Industrial Relations Commission of New South Wales upheld Riverstone Public School’s decision to sack a casual teacher, with 14 years’ teaching experience, for her inappropriate behaviour during and after a Christmas party harbour cruise.
The teacher’s behaviour at the school’s 2017 Christmas party landed her in hot water when, as a result of an investigation into her actions that night and the early hours of the following day, her teaching approval was revoked and she was placed on the NSW Department of Education’s ‘Not To Be Employed’ list.
An investigation by the NSW Department of Education’s Employee Performance and Conduct Directorate into the teacher’s behaviour found that she:
- sexually harassed the assistant principal during a rendition of the Macarena on a Sydney harbour cruise when she rubbed her body against his genital area “in a grinding motion“, in front of his wife and colleagues;
- sexually harassed and assaulted another colleague when she repeatedly inappropriately kissed, spoke to, and touched her at an apartment after the cruise, which had been hired for the night by a group of teachers; and
- sexually harassed a number of colleagues when she walked around the apartment naked the following morning.
The teacher filed an unfair dismissal application in the Industrial Relations Commission, which was rejected by the Commission. At the hearing, the teacher denied all of the allegations, except for admitting she walked around the apartment naked for a few minutes in the morning after sleeping naked due to the heat, but she believed that “no one was offended”.
The teacher claimed the allegations of sexual harassment and assault at the apartment were a complete fabrication. She also raised concerns in relation to the quality and fairness of NSW Department of Education’s investigation into the allegations against her.
Despite this, at the hearing the Commission found that:
- there was sufficient evidence to prove the very serious allegations of sexual harassment and assault, including evidence from a number of witnesses from the school who had experienced or observed the teacher’s behaviour on the cruise and at the apartment;
- the misconduct was sufficiently serious to justify the termination of the teacher’s employment; and
- the termination was not harsh, unjust, or unreasonable.
New year’s resolution for employers
This decision highlights the extended meaning of “at work”, especially around the festive season. It’s a reminder for employers to ensure staff are aware that expectations of appropriate workplace behaviour extend beyond the physical workplace, and work functions.
Importantly, prevention and preparedness are key when it comes to inappropriate workplace behaviour, inside and outside of the workplace. As a new year’s resolution, the case is a good way to kick off 2020 by:
- taking precautions for any work event, including in relation to alcohol consumption and staff awareness of expectations regarding behaviour;
- training staff in respectful and appropriate workplace (and out of work) behaviour;
- making sure matters are promptly and properly investigated; and
- ensuring employees are supported in times of extreme stress and are comfortable in speaking up and reporting misconduct.
Aaron Goonrey is a Partner and Isabel Hewitt is a Lawyer at Lander & Rogers.
Unfortunately, HR professionals often have to deal with harassment in the workplace. AHRI’s short course, ‘Bullying and Harassment’ can help to identify this behaviour and look at prevention tools to ensure your organisation maintains a great culture.