Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

Discipline, Dismissal, and the Demon Drink: An Explosive Social Cocktail

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

Discipline, Dismissal, and the Demon Drink: An Explosive Social Cocktail

Article excerpt


What constitutes acceptable behaviour in and around the workplace is, to some considerable extent, subject to the proverbial 'moving goal posts,' a set of sometimes oblique standards that move with changing societal mores. In the workplaces of Australia and New Zealand, that could not be more true than it is in relation to the consumption and influence of alcohol. By comparison, the regulations and expectations in relation to illicit drugs in the workplace are relatively straightforward. But alcohol consumption is legal, and enjoyed moderately and reasonably by most adults in many circumstances, including often times at or around the workplace. However, from both disciplinary and safety perspectives, there is increasing recognition of the dangers of alcohol consumption at work or at work-related social functions. Testament of the occupation health and safety dimension to this are the numerous comprehensive regulatory and advisory government and extra-government outputs at international (cf. Management of alcohol and drug-related issues in the workplace: an ILO code of practice (International Labour Organization, 1996)), state and national (cf. Guidance note: alcohol and other drugs at the workplace (Western Australia Commission for Occupational Safety and Health, 2008)), and industry levels (cf. Guidance for managing drug and alcohol-related risks in adventure activities (New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment, 2013).

First, let's set the scene - and we do so with a person we shall refer to as Ms C. At 24, she was a top salesperson at the most profitable outlet of a major appliance retailer, regularly pulling the highest commissions and monthly bonuses. She lived at home with her parents and was building a good financial basis for the future. She was good at sales and she enjoyed her work and, her workplace. Until the Christmas party!

To celebrate the holiday season and a good year at the store, staff organised drinks at a city pub followed by dinner at a nearby restaurant. Management contributed $25 per head. Everyone from the store manager to the cleaner was there. A couple of the women booked a room at a city hotel to avoid driving home to the suburbs at the end of the evening, and invited others to join them for "pre-drinks drinks" and Ms C went along. Later at the pub, already slipping under the influence, Ms C patted the store manager's behind, drawing a rebuke from the manager's wife. Alcohol continued to flow freely at dinner, for those who wanted it.

After dinner, Ms C and two men from the store went on to a nightclub, and eventually around midnight presented themselves, now conspicuously drunk, at the hotel room where their colleagues were preparing to sleep. Over the next couple of hours, Ms C had sex in the bathtub with the assistant store manager and, on the floor beside the bed in which her colleagues were trying to sleep, with the other man, a salesman from the store. Despite the protests of the women who rented the room, all three eventually passed out and spent the night. Ms C's recollection of events was hazy and incomplete at best.

The next day, the women who had rented the room filed complaints with store management and an investigation was initiated. The two men resigned. Ms C was interviewed and was sufficiently vague in her answers that she was accused of not being honest, and she was eventually fired for sexual harassment of the colleagues who rented the room and for lying during the investigation. She filed a grievance and won on some points, but she didn't get her job back or any substantial remedies, and that career path was pretty well shut down.

Ms C's story is a true one, drawn from the annals of employment case law. Social occasions where management and staff mix are a feature of many workplaces, and alcohol often serves as a "social lubricant" at such events. Friday night drinks after work or even every night drinks after work, special occasion celebrations of retirements, births, engagements, and marriages, dinner and drinks with colleagues while away on business, socialising with prospective customers or suppliers, and of course the long and widespread tradition of end-of-year or holiday celebrations. …

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