How HR teams can avoid getting burnt at summer parties

With social occasions back in season, Charlotte Nuttall discusses how employers can ensure workplace gatherings run smoothly

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Summer work parties are an opportunity for employers to celebrate and reward their teams outside the usual work environment. After the past two years, events that encourage staff integration are more important than ever. It’s an ideal opportunity for employees to have fun and build relationships, particularly for those who joined the business during the pandemic and have been working from home. 

Although there are many benefits to throwing a summer bash, as with any work social event there are challenges too. It falls to the HR team to strike the right balance between an enjoyable experience and avoidable risk. 

Location, location, location

Finding an appropriate location for your work event will be a top priority. Whatever the venue, it must be accessible to all to avoid employee complaints and/or claims of discrimination. If your chosen venue makes attendance problematic for a particular group of people, reconsider whether this is the right venue for you. 

It’s important to remember that Covid-19 has not disappeared into thin air and isn’t something that we can simply forget about. Factor this into your event risk assessment and ask your venue to confirm what protective measures they have in place too. 

Consider logistics for getting staff to and from the event, particularly where the venue is off the beaten track. An employer’s duty of care towards their employees extends to work functions, so it’s important this is given due consideration. If logistics are a concern, consider arranging discounted local hotel rooms or transport to/from designated locations. 

The date of your summer party is important too. For most employers, scheduling it as a Friday treat or on a weekend means there’s less risk of people calling in sick the next day or coming into work whilst still under the influence – booking your venue in advance will help to secure the ideal date.

Everyone’s invited

Making sure everyone is included sounds simple, but it’s often where things go wrong, with your dream summer event quickly turning into a nightmare. Be sure to invite every single member of staff, regardless of if they’re out of the business on family-related leave or for another reason. Failing to do so will leave you with demotivated staff at best, and at worst, leave you at risk of discrimination and/or constructive unfair dismissal claims. 

Setting expectations

While most events will happen without a hitch, the costs of it going wrong can be substantial. Businesses have a duty of care towards staff and while we want to encourage employees to let their hair down, that doesn’t mean that all the rules go out the window. 

It’s important for clear behavioural expectations to be established from the outset. While no-one wants to be a buzzkill, work events are an extension of the workplace and there are certain expectations that come with that. Reminding employees of relevant company policies, particularly those covering harassment, discrimination, social media, or drugs and alcohol is a good place to start. 

As with most parties, alcohol is often the cause of poor behaviour, and it is not unheard of for staff to become overly friendly or to post inappropriate messages/photos on social media. It’s important to remind employees that drinking too much isn’t an excuse for inappropriate behaviour, whether that be sexual harassment, any type of discrimination, damage to property or otherwise, and they may be subject to disciplinary action where expectations are not met. 

It’s key to remind employees that their employer is vicariously liable for their conduct at such events, so the implications of any lapse in judgement may be further reaching than they realised. 

Don’t get yourself in a fizz

Given alcohol can trigger lapses in judgement and inappropriate behaviour, organisations may want to consider ways to manage this risk. An effective way of doing this would be to appoint an event monitor. This is a task that can often fall on an employee who is teetotal; however, it’s important not to assume they are happy to take on this role. Instead, ask for volunteers and clearly outline the responsibilities that are expected of them. If you are unable to secure volunteers or feel this is overkill for your organisation, another option to reduce the risk of indiscretions would be to limit the amount of alcohol or hold an alcohol-free event. 

Consider briefing managers/speakers to make sure they limit any alcohol intake before they address staff and that they are not planning to say anything that might cause offence.

Final thoughts

Summer parties are a great way to celebrate the team, encourage integration and blow off some steam, but to get it right takes some planning too. If you communicate clearly with staff about expectations and existing policies and make sure everyone is included and happy, you’ll have an event that’s memorable for all the right reasons. 

Charlotte Nuttall is legal director of employment and HR at Napthens