Staff behaving badly: when does after-hours fun become a career-killer?

Are you the work-hard, play-hard type who likes to cut loose with colleagues after hours? Giving it a nudge off the clock is fine, up to the point when your collective actions tarnish the reputation of your employer.

One example of a company's reputation being trashed occurred after news of the alleged off-piste actions of a group of employees from recruitment giant Michael Page made national headlines following a rowdy ski weekend.

Staff from Mount Buller's Reindeer Ski Club took to social media to allege the group was abusive and threatening towards them. It prompted the recruiter to launch an internal investigation and promise appropriate disciplinary action.

It's believed the Mt Buller trip wasn't a work-sanctioned event, yet that didn't seem to matter in the subsequent coverage, .

Risky business

So has acting up with workmates outside the office become a risk not worth taking? Can it be a career-limiting move for up-and-comers, or even senior managers who turn a blind eye?

If your own mother would be ashamed of your behaviour, you're probably damaging your career.

Matt Kates

"No question," says Matt Kates, the country manager for business software vendor Zerto, who has kicked back with colleagues on ski trips himself in the past.

"If I went on a job interview and the company interviewing me did a little bit of homework and found I was involved in some kind of very public, very damaging event, it's almost guaranteed that would be brought up," Kates says.

"I would be challenged aggressively as to why they should hire me, considering I would put their business at risk. I would say that myself, if I was hiring someone and I found that they had behaved that way – so there's no question that that would harm someone's career.

"My experience, of course, is in the tech field but I can imagine it would certainly come up in other industries as well."

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Always 'on'

Smart phones and social media have blurred the line between public and private time and helped create a hyper-connected world. Now, employees are always 'on' and their conduct is permanently on display, according to Daniel Littlepage, general manager of video production company 90 Seconds.

Littlepage worked in the advertising industry in the late 1990s, when after-hours alcohol-fuelled exploits were legion, but repercussions fewer.

"Back in the day people would forget – you'd have a big night, things would happen, but there was no real evidence," he says.

"Times have changed … and employers are looking at the way their employees behave, the way that they represent the brand on a day-to-day basis – just the way we go about work is completely different these days.

"The moment you get up in the morning and switch on the phone, you're representing your employer or the brand so … if you're out with your mates on a Friday night after a few drinks, well, you're still representing your brand."

Blurred line

The dividing line between company and private events is not always clear, says Coleman Greig employment lawyer Stephen Booth. If your antics result in your employer's name hitting the headlines, the distinction may become irrelevant anyway.

"Generally, for it to be a 'company weekend' it would be organised by the company, either as a weekend with some work component, or as a social weekend but arranged by the company or promoted by the company in some way," Booth says.

However, even if your knees-up with colleagues is premised as a purely private affair, it's a mistake to assume you have a hall pass to behave badly.

"Generally speaking, out-of-work conduct is not the business of an employer … but an employer can have a code of conduct which requires staff not to bring the employer into disrepute, or to behave in any way that reflects badly on the employer," Booth says.

"And the employer can impose disciplinary consequences if an employee infringes those rules. You see a lot of this in social media policies, where employees are cautioned not to speak on behalf of, or appear connected to, their employer in any way, if they are making edgy comments online."

How to avoid being tomorrow's headline

So how do you tread the line between maintaining a lively social life and protecting your good name and promotion prospects?

Be alert to the possibility that when a group of work colleagues gathers out of hours and things get out of hand, the actions of a guilty few can tarnish an innocent majority. What seems like fun or mischief in the moment could be viewed negatively the next day - especially if other people are impacted.

Do your darnedest to call it a night before it happens, Booth advises. "Cease to participate and, if you can, try and settle down the other funsters so that the business and the individuals don't risk having their reputations trashed," he says.

"If you've contributed to your employer having a social media storm or appearing in the traditional media, then you will not have impressed your employer and it might be a career-limiting move, even if there are no immediate disciplinary consequences. What does it say about judgment or responsibility?"

That's the reality of living and working in an era where everything can be recorded and made public in minutes, executive coach Virginia Mansell agrees.

"The public on social media become the judge of appropriate behaviour and the perception on promote-ability and opportunities will be given to mature, social media-clean candidates," she says.

Not sure what's appropriate and what's pushing the line? Never mind codes of conduct - ask yourself what your mum would think, Kates advises.

"I think if it crosses the line to where … your own mother would be ashamed of your behaviour, you're probably damaging your career," he says.