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When the Christmas knees up turns into a monkeys' tea party

Jonathan Mansfield Thursday, November 26, 2015

As the season of goodwill and frolics getting out of hand is upon us, we have a cautionary tale from the London Central Employment Tribunal.

A love triangle between two female zookeepers and a male Llama handler at London Zoo, ended up in a fight at the Christmas party. One contestant was the current, and one the former flame, of the llama handler. Ill feeling spilled over as the night progressed, and culminated in a glassing incident leading to the victim having stitches in her face.

The woman who wielded the glass was dismissed. A fair dismissal, wouldn't you think? In fact the Tribunal made a finding that this was unfair.

You may ask how it can be, that someone inflicting an injury of this nature on their fellow worker could be unfairly dismissed for it. The answer is that it arose from the inconsistency of treatment. Both were to blame for the fight but only one was dismissed.

However, the sting in the tail for the dismissed employee was that she was not awarded a penny of compensation. While there were procedural flaws in the employer's approach, compensation was not appropriate. Compensation in unfair dismissal cases can be reduced because of contributory fault on the part of the former employee, or where the Tribunal does not think it is just and equitable to make an award. In some cases compensation can be reduced by as much as 100%.

As this case demonstrates, inconsistency of treatment can prove fatal to an employer seeking to establish a fair dismissal, particularly when it is impossible to determine who is ultimately culpable. Inconsistency will not always save the employee however, as the circumstances have to be almost identical for the tribunal to hear arguments on the point.

As an aside, it is sensible for employers to be aware that staff will want to let their hair down at the Christmas party, and that tempers may flare. It is important to strike a balance. Allowing staff to enjoy themselves can be a reward for a year of hard work but it is also sensible to remind staff in advance, that a knees up is not an excuse for behaviour that might otherwise lead to disciplinary action. 

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