Drunk at work: Held not to be serious misconduct

A senior employee who attended a work-related conference and exhibited signs of drunkenness at 9am on the morning following a night out drinking with work colleagues, has successfully been awarded nearly $300,000 in damages after being wrongly dismissed for serious misconduct.

The employee, a senior manager within the company, spent the night out drinking with work colleagues before falling asleep outside his hotel room in the early hours. He subsequently attended the work training conference, being held in the hotel, whilst still apparently drunk. The alleged behaviour included slurred and louder than normal speech, using animal noises when describing a recent safari and smelling of alcohol. The employee’s behaviour became the subject of an investigation which concluded that he should be summarily dismissed.

Ultimately the issues to be decided by the court rested on the correct interpretation of the employment contract and whether the conduct was properly considered serious misconduct.

Why was the behaviour held not to be “serious misconduct”?

Judge Taylor held that the correct approach required that ‘serious misconduct’ was to be interpreted with reference to the policies in place and the accepted practices of the company towards the drinking of alcohol.

The employer’s standard business practice involved relatively high levels of alcohol consumption at work-related functions with the cost of the alcohol being met by the company. Furthermore, the nature of the employee’s misconduct was not particularly serious and the damage was relatively minor given that no clients were present at the conference.

Lessons for Employers

Whether or not conduct meets the ‘bar’ for serious misconduct is not always as straight forward as it seems. This case highlights a number of important issues. Firstly, it demonstrates there are very few clear-cut examples of behaviour that will always, without further questions, amount to serious misconduct. In this case the conduct of an employee, who was found to still be drunk the next morning when attending a work conference, was not held to be serious misconduct in the absence of further aggravating factors.

The second aspect is the importance of the surrounding circumstances when weighing if something is or is not serious misconduct. Based on the facts of this case, the nature of the offending conduct, its impact and the treatment of another colleague who failed to attend the conference following the same drinking session, were all relevant considerations.

Lastly, the importance of good workplace policies and a healthy workplace culture cannot be overstated. The policies of the employer in conjunction with their accepted practices, which in this case condoned a culture of drinking and usually covered the costs of alcohol consumed, mitigated what would ordinarily be considered conduct at the more serious end of the scale.


Sarah Waterhouse




Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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