Navigating the HR Risksat Workplace Gatherings

After a few years of disruption due to the pandemic, workplace gatherings are firmly back on the scene; whether it’s regular drinks after work, networking events, or an all-company party.    

Everyone deserves to relax and have fun; however, employers should always plan ahead to ensure that they do not have an ‘employment law hangover’ the next day. 

Whilst the vast majority of employees know where the boundaries lie, there is still a risk that people take things too far. Therefore, there is some benefit for employers in pre-emptively reasserting those boundaries, even if it causes a few rolled eyes.  

Whilst writing the email to staff you might think that you are explaining the obvious and it shouldn’t need to be said. However, if you do find yourself involved in an Employment Tribunal, you will want to rely on the fact that you took all reasonable steps to avoid issues occurring. Sending an email setting out what behaviour is expected (and specifically what isn’t) is a simple step that can be taken. 

In addition to an email update, we have included our top considerations for employers to ensure a safe workplace event:

  1. Inclusivity is key
    Review plans to ensure that they are inclusive for all staff, for example, are there certain people or groups who don’t ever go on the weekly pub trip or who avoid the Christmas party? Consider whether there is a reason for that (for example, are they uncomfortable in those scenarios, or could it be down to religious beliefs) and if there is anything that can be done to ensure everyone feels welcome.  Also, make sure you invite those that are on family leave, carers leave or sick leave, as a common complaint is that certain employees feel ‘left out’.
  2. Offensive comment or “just banter”?
    We have all seen the news stories recently involving racist language used in the world of cricket and how the allegations were initially labelled as friendly ‘banter’.  This is a ‘defence’ we see used regularly when comments made are inappropriate and subject to disciplinary action. Unfortunately, simply saying something was ‘banter’ isn’t going to make it ok, so ensuring that all staff have adequate training in equality and diversity is important.
  3. Alcohol – when having fun goes too far
    This can be a difficult area for employers, torn between wanting employees to relax and have fun, and not wanting to appear overly paternalistic by placing limits on drinking.
    What is clear from cases that have reached the Employment Tribunal is that the employer is responsible for stopping drunken employees overstepping the mark where they have supplied or encouraged the drinking. There should therefore always be someone at a company function with the authority to tell an employee that he or she has had enough.

If you do find yourself dealing with the consequences of an employee who has over-indulged at a workplace event, what should you do?  Several factors may help guide you:

  • Firstly, context is important. If the work environment is heavily safety-regulated (such as transport) or in the public eye where professionalism and being seen to be doing the right thing is important, then the employer can be much less tolerant, especially where it has made its alcohol policies very clear to its staff.
  • If the employee cites ‘banter’ as an excuse for their comments, as well as taking disciplinary action against the individual, you should consider a company-wide refresher on equality and diversity to remind all employees that banter for one person may be highly offensive for another.
  • Finally, if there is an alcohol or substance dependency issue, disciplinary sanctions could be made conditional on the employee agreeing to undertake addiction treatment. 

Ultimately, balancing the above considerations whilst maintaining staff morale can be tough.  However, getting it right should help ensure a safe and low-risk festive period and avoid the January blues. 

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