Your legal risks at work-related social events and how to minimise them

Nov 10, 2014 | Good Management

Even if your Christmas party or other social event takes place outside work hours and off work premises, your business is likely to have exactly the same legal responsibilities as it does during normal working time in the office. So what liabilities do you need to be aware of and how can you minimise the risk to your business?

The most significant legal risks come from potential harassment or other discrimination claims. Sexual harassment is a significant risk at alcohol fuelled social events where office environment inhibitions are lowered, and even a single comment could constitute unlawful harassment.

Aside from potential harassment/discrimination claims as a result of behaviour of employees at the event, you should also consider potential for discrimination claims from other sources, such as food and drink and venue choices. There is also a risk of aggressive or violent behaviour when alcohol is flowing.

Clearly the best thing to do to minimise your legal risk is to try and prevent issues arising in the first place. But if they do, your risk is reduced if you can be seen to have taken reasonable steps to prevent discriminatory, harassing or negligent behaviour. Here are some things you can do:

Clarity of expectations

A big part in preventing issues and being seen to have taken steps to prevent issues is by making it absolutely clear to staff before the event what kind of behaviour is unacceptable.

You may already have policies on harassment, and other policies relating to acceptable behaviour, including possibly a list of gross misconduct offences. But it is advisable to specifically remind staff before an event that behaviour expectations extend to social events and be clear about what kinds of behaviour are unacceptable, even if there is a policy somewhere stating something similar. You should also highlight that there will be disciplinary consequences for breaches.

You may want to consider a specific policy on social events or parties, and this may be useful if you regularly hold these type of events. But if you choose not to have a policy, you should ensure employees are provided with written details or guidelines on acceptable behaviour prior to the event.

Planning your event

When planning your social event, consider provision of food and drink that meets any religious or cultural requirements for staff. You should also ensure you choose a venue suitable for access and use by disabled staff. Also consider travel home after the event – if you choose somewhere with no public transport or nearby cab firms, then the risks of drunk driving are higher.

Alcohol provision

In the event of any kind of legal claim it will be more difficult to demonstrate that you have taken reasonable steps to prevent unlawful behaviour if you have provided access to a free bar. So if you are feeling generous, direct this generosity towards food, entertainment, cabs home or similar, and reduce free alcohol to one or two drinks, making sure you also provide plenty of alternatives.

If you have any further queries and need some advice, do get in touch.