Fair dismissal following fight at work party

Posted on: December 17th, 2015

With the Christmas party season upon us, it’s time for the annual article warning employers of how it can all go horribly wrong. You will want to read on though, because this case involves bankers and licking…

The case involved employees of MBNA, who attended the bank’s 20th anniversary celebration at a local racecourse. Prior to the event, employees were warned that normal standards of behaviour and conduct would apply. Any misbehaviour would be subject to MBNA’s internal procedures and guidelines.

At the event, Mr Jones had an argument with another employee, Mr Battersby. Both employees had been drinking before and during the event. There was an incident between them, resulting in Mr Battersby kneeing Mr Jones in his leg and Mr Jones licking Mr Battersby’s face. Later in the evening, having seen Mr Jones with his sister, Mr Battersby kneed Mr Jones again. Mr Jones then punched Mr Battersby in the face. After the party, Mr Battersby sent Mr Jones text messages later that evening, including threats to ‘rip his f***ing head off’.

MBNA took disciplinary action against both employees. Mr Jones was dismissed for gross misconduct, while Mr Battersby received a final written warning. MBNA decided that Mr Battersby’s threatening text messages did not justify dismissal: the texts had been sent after the work event and were a response to being punched by Mr Jones. MBNA accepted that Mr Battersby had kneed Mr Jones, but said that this was not done with any force or aggression and was not substantive provocation for Mr Jones punching him. Mr Jones brought a claim for unfair dismissal. The Employment Tribunal decided that Mr Jones’ dismissal was unfair because there was a disparity of treatment between Mr Jones and Mr Battersby. However, MBNA appealed this decision.

What did the EAT decide?

Mr Jones’ dismissal for his misconduct at the work event was fair.

An inconsistent disciplinary sanction will not make a dismissal unfair, unless the circumstances of the employees were ‘truly parallel’. In this case, the circumstances were not.

There were differences in the employees’ circumstances that justified alternative sanctions. The EAT drew a distinction between Mr Jones’ deliberate punch at an event during which MBNA’s disciplinary rules applied, and Mr Battersby’s threat after the event, which was never carried out.

Provocation is not a ‘defence’ to misconduct, but can be considered by an employer when carrying out the disciplinary process.

What does this mean for employers?

Although they may take place outside of normal working hours, employers’ social events and Christmas parties are work events. This means that employees can be disciplined for their actions at the event. This also means that the employer is likely to be liable for its employees’ behaviour. Whilst no employer wants to unnecessarily overshadow festive events with dire warnings about standards of behaviour, employers should take reasonable steps to prevent unacceptable conduct occurring at social events.

Employers should:

  • Ensure there is an equal opportunities policy and training in place to prevent harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
  • Remind employees about the standard of behaviour required prior to social events.
  • Have one or more managers designated to keep an eye out for any unacceptable or potentially problematic behaviour, so this can be dealt with before it escalates.
  • Deal with any grievances or concerns about employees’ behaviour at social events promptly under the grievance or disciplinary procedure as appropriate.
  • When considering the misconduct of a number of employees consider the consistency of sanctions given.