Legal Q&A: work-related social events

Party with care

Q Should we have written rules on work-related social events?

A Make sure you provide clear written guidance to all employees about acceptable standards of behaviour at work-related social events – and the disciplinary sanctions that could result from breaches of the rules. While it might be unreasonable to expect employees to stay completely sober, include a statement that only moderate alcohol consumption is acceptable. Fighting, the use of illegal drugs and inappropriate language will also be no-nos.

Q Can we be held liable for harassment that takes place during work parties?

A Yes, you can be held vicariously liable for discriminatory acts by your employees – even if your party is held off-site and out of normal working hours.

The claim most likely to arise is probably sexual harassment, but don’t forget that the law now extends to unwanted conduct on the grounds of age, religion and sexual orientation.

Make sure your policy on harassment is up-to-date, and has been brought to the attention of all employees – a key first step to providing a defence, should the worst happen.

Q What if third parties, such as entertainers or customers invited to the party, cause offence?

A Be aware that third parties, such as the hired entertainment and any clients or customers invited, may be the source of offensive behaviour.

While the House of Lords has said that an employer will not be liable for subjecting an employee to discrimination by a third party, unless the reason for its failure to act is related to the employee’s race, age, etc, the High Court held recently that, under the Equal Treatment Directive, harassment can include an employer’s failure to prevent harassment by a third party.

Make third parties attending the event aware that the organisation is committed to equal opportunities, and do everything reasonably practicable to ensure your staff are not subjected to unacceptable behaviour by them.

Q When should we hold our event?

A Take into account that a lunch-time event may be more convenient than an evening for those with childcare responsibilities.

Choose the day of the week carefully too – having your event on a Friday night, for example, might exclude Jewish staff.

Q What kinds of catering should we offer?

A Take care to avoid unfair treatment of anyone whose religion forbids alcohol by ensuring plenty of non-alcoholic alternatives.

Remember that employees of certain religious beliefs may be vegetarian or unable to eat certain foods, such as pork or beef. Ask beforehand about any special dietary requirements, so that these can be accommodated.

Q Are there any implications of inviting employees’ partners?

A If you extend invitations to employees’ partners, think about potential sexual orientation discrimination. Remember to ensure that both same-sex and opposite-sex partners are invited.

Q Should we supply free alcohol?

A While you might want to provide a couple of free drinks for employees, remember that a free bar throughout the event will encourage excessive alcohol intake. Limit the supply of free alcohol, and ensure a plentiful supply of low-alcohol alternatives, as well as water and soft drinks.

Q Who will be in charge on the night?

A Designate responsibility for supervising the event to specific managers. Provide them with guidelines on dealing with drunk or disorderly employees – and make sure the supervisors know they themselves are required to stay sober.

Q Do we have to help employees get home at the end of the party?

A Remember your duty of care and consider how your employees will get home after the party. Issue advice in advance of the event about not drinking and driving, and encourage staff to think beforehand about how they will get home.

Consider hiring coaches or minibuses to leave at set times towards and at the end of the event, or provide telephone numbers for local taxi firms.

Q There are always employees who don’t come in to work the next day. What can we do about this?

A Consider warning staff beforehand that unauthorised absence the day after the event may be treated as a disciplinary issue. But remember that employees are likely to phone in sick rather than simply fail to show up.

While you might have strong suspicions that a hangover is the real reason for the absence, evidence – not merely suspicion – that the employee is not genuinely sick will be required.

If you do treat absence as a disciplinary matter, don’t forget the minimum statutory procedures.

Jo Stubbs is managing editor of XpertHR

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