Choose accessible venues or locations
When choosing where to host an event, an employer needs to consider accessibility.
Employers should ensure that their workplace premises are as accessible as possible. This is in addition to the legal requirement to make reasonable adjustments for disabled staff (including job applicants), such as by providing lifts or access ramps.
Generally speaking, if an event is being held at the employer’s usual workplace, it is likely that workplace accessibility will already have been considered, with suitable access being provided to everyone. However, if the event is being held at another location (eg a restaurant, hotel or club), employers should check that the venue is accessible to all staff members. This doesn’t just include ensuring everyone can enter the venue to access the event, but also ensuring that all other features of the venue are accessible. For example, verifying that the venue’s disabled toilets are in fact in use.
Plan inclusive activities
As when choosing an event location, an employer should make sure that the activities at the event are inclusive and accessible to all staff members. This is not only essential for complying with employer legal obligations but also for fostering a positive and inclusive workplace culture.
For example, a Christmas party that solely involves ice skating may exclude anyone who cannot ice skate (eg because they use a wheelchair). Unintentional exclusion of staff members can lead to grievances and even claims of discrimination.
Ensure any food and drinks provided are inclusive
If a work event will include food and/or drinks, employers should ensure that the food and drink options are inclusive and accommodate diverse dietary preferences, cultural backgrounds and health considerations. For example, food options should include vegetarian, vegan, halal and kosher options and options for anyone with food intolerances (eg gluten-free options). The easiest way to ensure food options accommodate everyone is to ask staff members in advance if they have any special dietary requirements.
Similarly, employers should make sure drink options are inclusive, with non-alcoholic drinks being provided. In fact, employers may wish to make all work events dry (ie non-alcoholic) events. For more information, read Can alcohol be consumed at work?.
Adopt clear workplace policies
On top of organising the festivities, employers must ensure that they have appropriate policies in place. These policies should be communicated to employees prior to the event to ensure that employers comply with various pieces of legislation.
Without appropriate HR policies and procedures, behaviour at work events can have major repercussions. Some of the policies employers should consider adopting include:
Under vicarious liability laws, employers can have responsibility for their staff members’ actions even outside of the normal working environment and hours.
Any social event organised by an employer is automatically an ‘extension of the workplace’, regardless of the time or place of the event.
Clearly communicate with staff in advance of the event
As a first step, it is crucial that employers never insist that everyone attend a workplace event. People may not want to attend the event for personal reasons (eg due to parental obligations or religious beliefs) and any insistence could be considered discrimination.
Either as a part of the invitation, or shortly before the event, employers should explain to all invitees what is expected of them. Employers should remind all staff members (and other guests) that they are required to behave in a mature and responsible manner throughout the event.
As well as referring them to existing HR policies and/or an Employee handbook, employers should address the following considerations:
Staff members’ health and safety obligations
Under health and safety laws, all staff members have a general duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety. They also have the same duty to others who may be affected by their acts or omissions. Attendees must keep these obligations in mind when attending workplace events, especially when consuming alcohol.
Consumption of alcohol
Speaking of alcohol, if alcohol will be consumed at the event, employers should remind all attendees that alcohol should be consumed in moderation. Employers should make it clear that the provision of alcohol (eg via a free bar) should not be taken as an excuse to drink excessively.
Employers should specifically state that any unacceptable behaviour or improper conduct will not be accepted. Any such behaviour will be treated as a serious disciplinary matter. This includes actions towards another staff member, an invited guest, or a member of the wait/bar staff or other event staff.
Unacceptable behaviour includes:
the use of illegal drugs
unlawful or inappropriate discrimination or harassment
violence such as fighting or aggressive behaviour, serious verbal abuse, or the use of other inappropriate language
For more information, read Disciplinary process.
Getting home after the event
No one should ever drink and drive. Employers should encourage attendees to make prior arrangements regarding how they will get home (eg by public transport or taxi). To ensure staff members get home safely, employers can provide details of local taxi services close to the venue if required.
The day after
If the event is mid-week and staff members are expected to be at work the next day, employers should let them know if they are expected to work as usual regardless of overindulging. A hangover is not an acceptable reason for sickness absence.
Remind staff members that the normal policies and procedures for absences still apply. Unless they have already arranged to take the day as holiday, normal sickness procedures will apply. If a staff member fails to turn up as expected, they may be subject to disciplinary action. However, employers should remember that staff members may genuinely be sick (or have an unrelated sickness) after a work event. As a result, it is crucial that any absences following a work event are treated fairly.
Clearly explaining to staff what is expected of them during events and festivities, is a fantastic way to avoid any tricky situations in the new year.
Finally, employers who traditionally have a history of festive tolerance should be aware that their previous generosity can be used by staff members as evidence against any disciplinary action resulting from festive misconduct.