When the Company Picnic is No Picnic

With summer in full swing, it’s officially company picnic season! To avoid being the topic of conversation at the water cooler come Monday morning, please proceed with caution.

Work Hard, Play Hard?

Arbitrator M. David Keefe ruled in Marshall Brass Co., 78 LA 806, that the employer had just cause to discharge the grievant based on his behavior at the company-funded summer picnic.

It must be noted that, in addition to taking advantage of the company-authorized beer, the grievant also enjoyed a personal supply of alcoholic beverages. 

This combination led to a series of unfortunate events.

First, the grievant addressed his plant manager in an “unsavory and vulgar” manner. The grievant proceeded to push the manager, causing him to fall back on a child, who was then knocked down to the ground. 

At some point during the picnic (the grievant was unable to remember much from that day), he threw several beer cans at the manager. Fortunately, he missed. Unfortunately, one of the cans struck a witness in the face.

Additionally, the grievant argued that he wished to buy a house, but was unable to, “because of” the manager. In an attempt to persuade the manager to meet with him in the woods, “where matters could be settled,” the grievant also promised said manager that he would kill him.

The grievant eventually made the prudent decision to leave the picnic. However, on his way out, he backed his van into another employee’s vehicle.

Acknowledging that alcohol consumption was the reason for the grievant’s behavior, Keefe concluded it was not an excuse. He noted that “neither the Company nor the Union encouraged or expected any participant to over-indulge.” 

Further, the grievant was not obligated to attend the picnic, but in doing so, he “assumed the normal, social obligation to behave with sufficient grace not to reduce the affair to an ordeal instead of a pleasant interlude,” wrote Keefe. 

Keefe held that the grievant’s actions ran “counter to management's legitimate business interests,” and “could not possibly avoid having carry-back impact” on the in-plant relationship.

As a general rule, this behavior likely will lead to discipline, and attendance at a picnic does not provide protection from same.

A review of data provided by Bloomberg BNA's Arbitration Award Navigator shows that of the 1,638 arbitration awards involving misconduct, the employer prevailed in 56.9% of cases, the union prevailed in 22.7% of cases, individuals prevailed in 0.2% cases, and 20.2% of cases involved mixed prevailing parties.

(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Picnic)

If you’re one of the unlucky – or, depending on your reading of the above case, lucky – employees whose company will not be hosting a picnic this summer, know your rights.

Concluding that the employer’s unilateral discontinuance of its annual summer picnic constituted a violation of the collective-bargaining agreement, arbitrator Milo G. Flaten ordered the reinstatement of the company’s picnic in Hayssen Manufacturing Co., 82 LA 500.

After over 40 years of hosting the picnic, the company announced its cancellation of the event due to poor economic conditions. In doing so, the employer failed to notify or consult the union.

Flaten pointed to the employer’s practice of issuing an “Annual Statement which itemizes and breaks down non-direct wage benefits received by workers.” Each statement “assigns a dollar value to each benefit bestowed including the Company Picnic,” Flaten said.

Flaten also found that the employer listed the “Annual Company Picnic” as a benefit in the Hayssen Employee Handbook for Hourly Personnel. The past practice of hosting the picnic had “actually been reduced to writing,” the arbitrator wrote. 

Thus, Flaten held, the cancellation of that “legitimate expectation” constituted a contract violation.

Arbitrator William P. Daniel similarly concluded in Mead Westvaco, 120 LA 1368, that “the binding past practice of the employer holding a company picnic” must continue, even though the collective-bargaining agreement failed to reference the picnic.

The employer had sponsored the picnic since the 1920s, but cancelled it due to decreased attendance and increased costs. However, Daniel found that over the years, the picnic had become “a custom and rose to the status of ‘a past practice.’”

Daniel also provided numerous “suggestions in the form of an outline.” He advised the employer to develop a planning committee and return to the basics of a “good old company picnic” with regard to food and beverages. The arbitrator also noted that it “is the union's responsibility to see that its members are informed and encouraged to attend” the event.

Final Point on Company Picnics

Whether you choose to review your collective-bargaining agreement, or the aforementioned cases, plan accordingly for your company’s annual day of fun in the sun (and don’t forget the sunscreen).