Do you remember the “sneaky nuts” craze? If you do, you can blame the character of Daniel as created and brought to life by Australian comedian Chris Lilley in the mockumentary series Angry Boys. He introduced us to sneaky nuts photo bombs in 2011. For those of you who have no idea what we are on about – search YouTube, if you dare!

But recently, engaging in such apparently innocent antics sealed the fate of a general manager who was dismissed from his employment for inappropriate conduct.

How sneaky nuts came to be part of a Federal Court case

Mr McGowan was terminated from his employment in November 2014, ostensibly for a lack of sales performance and “HR skills in relation to the way [he spoke] to staff and clients.” Mr McGowan pursued a claim in the Federal Court seeking 12 months termination of employment (as reasonable notice) and claimed that he had been dismissed in actual fact for making a complaint.
In its response, his former employer argued that Mr McGowan had engaged in “rude and crude conduct”, including making highly offensive comments to the pregnant wife of an employee and generally making critical comments in an inappropriate fashion to subordinates.
Amongst various other matters, Mr McGowan was also criticised for emailing a photograph to a business development manager with the subject line “sneaky nut,” which showed him seated on the toilet and exposing parts of his genitalia through the sides of his shorts. Mr McGowan claimed that he and the male business development manager had a “boisterous” and “fun loving” friendship outside of work but always maintained their professionalism in the workplace. This was not disputed by the recipient of the email.

Sneaky nuts ultimately responsible for downfall

Although the sneaky nuts email was not relied upon by the respondent company in its decision to dismiss Mr McGowan, and the court did not consider it as part of the body of evidence against him, Judge McNab concluded that his decision to send such an email demonstrated “such a lack of judgment” that he accepted the evidence of other witnesses in relation to Mr McGowan’s conduct generally, despite Mr McGowan’s denials.

His Honour also concluded that sending a sneaky nuts email in the context Mr McGowan did was “completely anathema to the notion of providing some sort of sensible leadership and commanding respect from employees.” Ultimately, this tarnishing of Mr McGowan’s character and general conduct was such that it was found that his employment had been appropriately terminated, and in circumstances where the court was clearly disinclined to grant any leniency to Mr McGowan in making its decision.

The potential pitfalls of viral crazes in the workplace

Over the past few years we have seen many viral crazes – sneaky nut, the ice bucket challenge, planking… the list goes on, and there are many more surely yet to come. So what is the message of this recent Federal Court decision?

It demonstrates the negative impact of employees, and in particular senior management, allowing their impulses to run free in the spirit of workplace good humour or popularity.

Where there is a conflict between doing something “all in good fun” and the adult responsibilities of work, management and leadership expected of employees while engaged in their employment, staff must be aware that employers and courts will not look favourably upon a larrikin approach to life.

If you are concerned about your workplace culture or whether your employees have gotten the memo on what is appropriate workplace behaviour, Wise Workplace can help your business develop and implement the policies you need to regulate acceptable behavioural standards.

Check out these short courses for more information regarding behaviour in the workplace.

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