Corporate social hospitality: social work

‘Corporate hospitality’ is a phrase guaranteed to strike fear into a human resources (HR) professional’s heart. Helen McCormick reports on the risks of work-related ‘jollies’.

Has there ever been a case of ‘man overboard’ on your firm’s teambuilding boat trip? Have your staff lost a hapless client in a foreign city, or has an employee ruined their favourite shirt while paintballing?

Corporate hospitality can be a great tool for engaging staff and suppliers, and the variety of activities on offer is immense – from bungee jumping and go-karting to straightforward wining and dining. While they may be great fun for employees and clients, the risk of something going wrong in an environment that is out of your control is immense. To make matters worse, corporate hospitality events are not always cleared with HR, so the first you know about them is when something has backfired.

Such mishaps may be merely irritating or amusing, but the consequences can be serious. If someone is injured or even killed while in the care of your staff, the implications for your organisation could be extreme.

In a recent posting on Personnel Today’s Work Clinic blog, we asked you to send in your stories to serve as a warning to the rest of the HR community. Here’s what you told us. To start off, here’s an exchange that appeared on blog:

Friday beer

“I used to work for a company that had ‘beer-30’ every week. The executives would purchase large amounts of beer, wine and snacks at 4:30pm every Friday.

“I think the point was to keep employees from leaving early, which is weird because instead of leaving they just stayed at work, but stopped working and started drinking.

“About 30% of our workforce were minors and 99% drove their cars to and from work. You can imagine what an HR nightmare this was. I fought to have this tradition abolished – or at least replaced with non-alcoholic beverages – to no avail. I didn’t work there long.”

Posted by HR Wenchon 27.09.07

Killjoy HR

“I think you should have as many booze-ups as you want to celebrate team success. If people have worked hard and they want to celebrate by getting merry then I have no problem with that as long as they don’t insult each other or their clients and, above all, that they don’t drive home.

“Let the team know that a social rave-up is an extension of duties, and then enjoy. We cannot always live life like sticks in the mud. Why is it so often that HR people are the ones that seem a little square? Loosen up HR – it’s the medicine many of you need.”

Posted by Steve Milleron 01.10.07

Covering eventualities

“But Steve, the ‘booze-up’ was every single Friday and it wasn’t for celebrating team success. No precautions were taken to safeguard employees from themselves, the community from drunk drivers, or the company from liability.

“I have no problem with employees going to dinner with clients, having alcohol with their meal and the company paying for it. Nor do I have a problem throwing a party that involves alcohol to celebrate success, as long as precautions are taken.

“However, setting up a bar in the office during the working day is definitely a bad idea. Those who serve alcohol (be it a private party, or in a bar or restaurant) can and are held liable for accidents that occur as a result of someone driving drunk and getting into an accident.

“Advising the company of significant risk? Yes. Stick in the mud? No. Just ask anyone who has lost a loved one to a drunk-driving accident.”

Posted by HR Wenchon 01.10.07

Other anecdotes were sent to, some of which we have kept anonymous:

Intoxicating experience

“I used to go on regular raucous nights out in a previous job. One evening in particular has always haunted me – one of us could have died, or at least been seriously injured. But the HR department there either didn’t know or didn’t care about these events.

“That organisation’s corporate culture encouraged the consumption of significant amounts of alcohol during lengthy dinners with the senior management of the company, and there always seemed to be a reason to carry on afterwards. On the night in question, we met for drinks in a bar and followed up with dinner, during which I consumed more alcohol than I would normally drink in a whole year. The scary part of this is that we all drove back to our hotels. We were very lucky that all of us reached our destinations without incident.

“It didn’t take me long to realise that the job was potentially hazardous to my health and wellbeing, and I chose to move on. I don’t blame the company because nobody forced me to drink anything.

“The underlying principle to consider is to limit liability. If you ask your legal counsel if people should be allowed to drink alcohol while on company business, most would say no. Clearly, if nobody drinks then the risk of any problem caused by drinking excessively will be eliminated.

“So that’s the safest thing to do, but is that really practical? Consuming alcohol is such an integral part of most forms of hospitality that there would likely be an outcry if such consumption were limited or eliminated.

“There are various ways to attempt to limit alcohol consumption. I worked for a large manufacturing firm that issued tickets to be redeemed for beer at functions. Each person was limited to two.

“Did this work? Not really. What happened was that those who didn’t drink beer gave their tickets to the people who did. But from a legal perspective, the company had attempted to limit alcohol consumption to two beers. This was clearly a better situation than an open bar, but still more risky than the no-alcohol alternative.”

Anonymous e-mail to The Work Clinic

Fear factor

“One organisation I worked for took a 30-strong department away for a teambuilding event, including lots of outdoor activities, such as white-water rafting, orienteering, abseiling and an adventure course high up in the trees.

“It started out fun, but soon turned into a nightmare when one person nearly drowned after becoming trapped beneath a boat in the rapids. Another person then had a panic attack while abseiling down a cliff and needed medical attention.

“It got worse. The tree course was 30 feet up and involved going across rope and swing bridges. The senior manager of the department froze with fear on tree number two, unable to go forwards or backwards, and certainly not down.

“As his team called out ‘encouragement’ he remained stuck, hugging the tree until an instructor climbed up to help. However, nothing was going to get him to move, and eventually the instructor rigged up a harness and he was lowered to the ground, clutching the tree the whole way down, in full view of his staff.

“Needless to say that department stayed in nice, safe, ground-level hotels for all future teambuilding events.”

Anonymous e-mail to The Work Clinic

Safe keeping

Susan Thompson, partner, and Adam Hugill, employment solicitor at Magrath & Co, sent the following story and she suggests tips on how to avoid a similar disaster:

“We recently heard about a teambuilding event based on a weekend trip to a ‘rustic’ lodge in the Scottish Highlands,” she says. “No real information was provided to the team in question, but they felt obliged to go, not least because of their imminent year-end bonus reviews.

Thompson adds: “When the mixed-sex team arrived after a marathon trek through the mountains, they discovered ‘rustic’ meant no flushing toilets, running water or shower facilities and insufficient beds.

“After a hellish night, the sleep-deprived team were expected to undertake tasks designed to measure their performance under pressure, with strong insinuations that their performance could affect their career progression,” she says.

“Needless to say not everyone involved was happy with what went on.”

But does this mean that such events are inappropriate in an employment context?

Not necessarily, according to Thompson. Such an event may be excellent at achieving the aim of teambuilding, but certain safeguards should be put in place by the employer to reduce the possibility of allegations of discrimination, harassment and breaches of trust and confidence (which could all lead to claims of constructive unfair dismissal).

Thompson suggests the following tips:

At the outset, such an event should not be used to measure performance of members of staff and it should certainly never affect things such as career progression and bonuses. This will almost always be unfair and could be discriminatory.

Employees should be told in advance what they should expect. If an employee is not comfortable with what is offered, they should be able to refuse without repercussions.

Employers must be mindful of potential discrimination. Extreme events, especially those of a physical and ‘rustic’ nature, are likely to appeal more to men than women. Employees with a disability would also be disadvantaged and this needs to be considered. Also, any event that forces workers into each other’s personal space could give rise to allegations of harassment and discrimination. Events that revolve exclusively around alcohol, and which are often accompanied by pressure to get very drunk, can also be discriminatory.

The timing of events may be discriminatory. After-work and weekend events potentially discriminate against working parents, and religious holidays and customs should be considered.

Employees should be able to say: “I’m an employee get me out of here.” This is especially the case when the event is in the middle of nowhere or overseas. To force an employee to endure extreme conditions or undertake unduly challenging tasks could result in a grievance, and potentially a claim for constructive unfair dismissal.

Finally, always ensure that a variety of teambuilding events of various types take place at a choice of times to ensure that what is offered does not exclude certain employees.

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