Hannah Ford: Avoiding the legal pitfalls around summer events and staff socials

Hannah Ford

Summer events and staff socials can be effective ways of motivating or rewarding employees, building team morale, and increasing job satisfaction. However, when employees leave the confines of the workplace and enter a relaxed and social environment the risk of employee misbehaviour, and consequent claims, obviously increases.

Employers should be mindful of the fact that where off-site social events are connected to work, be it through the organisationā€™s expense account, the eventā€™s attendees (staff, clients, suppliers) or compulsory attendance, they can be vicariously liable for the offensive, negligent or discriminatory conduct of their employees or other attendees.

The risk of such behaviour occurring during work trips and events, and of the organisation being liable can be minimised by taking the following steps.

First, clearly communicating to staff whether an event is a work-related event or not.

Second, where it is work related, having a clear policy on expected conduct at such events and trips. It should provide specific examples of unacceptable behaviour, including excessive alcohol consumption, fighting, offensive jokes and inappropriate physical contact, and state the disciplinary sanctions for such behaviour. It should also cross-refer to the organisationā€™s harassment policy and training should be provided on both.

Third, limiting the supply of alcohol at such events or, failing that, time limiting free or employer-subsidised alcohol.

Fourth, appointing one or more managers to monitor events, and fifth, dealing with any issues arising from such events promptly and consistently.

It is also important for employers organising such events to comply with statutory obligations under discrimination legislation by, for example, ensuring that venues and activities are accessible for disabled employees, ensuring that any entertainment is not offensive to certain religions or groups, and catering to various dietary and religious requirements for food. Failure to do so may lead to costly claims for discrimination, which employees can pursue during their employment.

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For employers, the risk of appearing a summer social kill joy is almost certainly preferable to the cost of an employment tribunal claim.

Hannah Ford is partner at Stevens and Bolton