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Conduct at work events | How should employers handle a Will Smith type situation?

Written by Alexandra Farmer on 29 March 2022

You’re at a work event. The whole company has come together to celebrate colleagues’ achievements over the last 12 months. As the awards begin, the compere for the evening, a fellow colleague – let’s call him A – starts to make jokes. You’re smiling along when suddenly a joke is made that is close to the bone. You hear your sharp intake of breath but what you don’t expect is the reaction of the colleague sat next to you.

This colleague, B, is now on his feet, shouting at the compere about the inappropriateness of the ‘joke’. A number of alcohol-fuelled profanities follow, and there’s a threat of violence made. Just as quickly as it began, the incident appears to be over.

Will Smith recently went viral for very similar conduct at the Oscars. The actor, who has since publicly apologised, slapped comedian Chris Rock live on stage after he made a near-the-knuckle joke about Smith’s wife, who has been open about her experience with hair loss due to alopecia. “I can’t wait for G.I. Jane 2”, he quipped.

While the story made headlines and sparked debate online, conduct issues at work events – especially where alcohol is involved – are more common than you may think. So, what lessons can we learn from the Oscars incident, as it applies to the workplace?

'In the course of employment'

We all know – or should know – that we are expected to behave in a certain way while at work, and that if we don’t, we face repercussions. However, there may be incidents that occur outside of the workplace, and/or outside of normal working hours, which are related to and connected with an individual’s employment. These could be considered to have happened “in the course of employment”. Conduct on social media and at work events are two of the more obvious examples. 

When a colleague is at a work-related social event, behaviour will fall to be managed in the same way as if it was during normal hours of work. So, in the scenario above, how should you managers respond?

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Your next move

As the employee’s manager, you sit back in your seat and know that your urgent task for Monday morning has now become to deal with this incident. 

Whilst you’re out having fun, this is a work event being held in a public space. The colleague has put the reputation of your business at risk with the outburst. They have also threatened another colleague with violence. You know that an investigation will need to take place, and that it will likely result in disciplinary action.

On the Monday morning, the investigation begins. Speaking to B, he says that he was aggrieved by the ‘joke’ made by A. He didn’t think it was appropriate and, whilst he acknowledges his response was inappropriate, he thinks it’s right that he should have been able to air his concerns.

Most grievance policies urge employees to try to settle grievances informally in the first instance. However, your policy should ask that employees raise any concerns with their line manager or other appropriate person – not take matters into their own hands.

This ensures that both parties are treated in line with policy and also ensures the person raising the concerns doesn’t end up saying or doing something in the heat of the moment that results in more serious consequences than the original complaint. If two colleagues need to come together to air their differences and agree a way to work together moving forwards, the line manager can help to facilitate this.

Once you’ve got B’s account, you also need to speak to A as part of the investigation. 

When you get A into a meeting, they explain that they don’t want to make a formal complaint. They recognise their own part in this situation and also highlight that B was drunk and “probably wouldn’t have done it otherwise”. The question is, is this great news that allows you to shelve the whole investigation? Can everyone just move on?

No further action?

In relation to the Will Smith incident, the Police are not pursuing an investigation because Chris Rock has declined to file a police report. Likewise, in the employment setting, it may be very tempting, if A doesn’t want to complain about B’s behaviour, to just close the page and not proceed with any formal action.

However, employers are reminded of the importance of consistency in dealing with disciplinary matters. B’s conduct was very serious – and also very public. In cases like this, employers should step in.

Even without a formal complaint or engagement from A in the investigation, it is important to pursue the matter via the company’s disciplinary procedure. Failure to do so would not only impact the trust colleagues have in management to deal with conduct issues but also limit your ability when dealing with other disciplinary matters.

After all, it will be difficult to take action in the future against a colleague being late for work on a few occasions when everyone has seen colleague B be threatening colleague A, or actually being violent towards them, with no disciplinary action taken.

An important lesson

For people managers and HR, the Will Smith situation underscores the importance of employees behaving appropriately at work events. Poor conduct could not only damage the employer’s reputation but also leave you with the hangover of a potential disciplinary situation to contend with.

Here are my 5 top tips for avoiding an Oscars-style calamity in your workplace:

1

Prevention is better than cure. If you don’t have one already, draw up a code of conduct that sets out the standards and behaviours you expect of your employees. This can include respecting others and upholding the company’s values, and you can specify what these values are. You should also make sure your disciplinary policy covers conduct at work events.

2

Ahead of work events, remind employees of the standards of behaviour you expect and that, while you want them to enjoy themselves, they should keep in mind that this is a work-related activity. You could tag this on to any memo you’re planning to circulate about the arrangements for the event.

3

Remind employees of your drug and alcohol policy. Make it clear to staff prior to the event that drunk or disorderly behaviour will not be tolerated and may lead to disciplinary action. In some cases, alcohol-fuelled behaviour may be treated as a gross misconduct offence, which may result in dismissal without notice. Also, consider asking management to go easy as they can play an important role in setting a good example for others and keeping their team in check.

4

Remind employees that any grievances, whether informal or formal, should be raised with the appropriate line manager rather than employees taking matters into their own hands. This should be set out in your grievance policy and procedure.

5

Again, always consider formal action in line with your internal procedures, even if an employee says they don’t wish to ‘make a complaint’. Sometimes employees are fearful of proceeding with issues formally but it’s still important for employers, especially when conduct is serious, to progress through a full and fair process to ensure consistency of treatment.

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Facing a similar scenario? Get set-cost support

WorkNest’s Employment Law and HR specialists can assist with ensuring appropriate policies and procedures in place, including in relation to behaviour at work-related social events, if this is something your business doesn’t currently have in place. 

We can also advise on carrying out disciplinary and grievance procedures and, if you require on-site support, our HR Consultancy Team can help on the ground chairing these processes for you to provide independent expertise and ensure they are carried out correctly.

For more information and to discuss your specific situation, call our team today on 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.

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