Alcohol at work events | How to prevent 3 sobering HR problems this party season
Written by Susie Lockheart 23 October 2023
Office parties and work-related events are a perfect opportunity for socialising, strengthening team connections, and letting off steam. But often these gatherings come with a common ingredient that can either enhance or complicate the experience – alcohol.
From colleagues who don’t know their limits to unintentionally excluding those who don’t drink, the inclusion of alcohol at work events presents a multitude of considerations for employers.
In this blog, we explore three key considerations for employers to help you prevent these common pitfalls, plus top tips for ensuring your events remain enjoyable, inclusive and incident-free.
1. Inappropriate sexual advances
Imagine a scenario at a work party where John, a senior colleague, has had a few too many drinks. Feeling emboldened by the relaxed atmosphere, he starts making suggestive comments to his coworker, Sarah, who feels extremely uncomfortable by his advances. In this situation, John’s behaviour is a clear case of inappropriate sexual advances.
If an employee is sexually harassed by a coworker at a work event, the employer may be held liable if it can be demonstrated that they failed to take reasonable steps to prevent such harassment or if they did not appropriately address it when it occurred.
To mitigate this risk, and minimise liability in these scenarios, employers should make sure they:
- Have well-defined policies and procedures in place to prevent and address harassment. Ensure these policies are communicated to employees before events, emphasising potential consequences for inappropriate sexual advances.
- Provide training to employees on harassment prevention and reporting, further enhancing their understanding of expectations and consequences.
- Monitor behaviour during the event. You might want to appoint designated staff members to keep an eye on things and intervene as necessary, ensuring a safe atmosphere.
- Create confidential reporting mechanisms for employees who experience or witness inappropriate advances. Additionally, foster a supportive culture where employees feel secure reporting such behaviour without fear of retaliation.
- Respond to any reports of sexual harassment swiftly and impartially. This will include conducting thorough investigations, taking disciplinary action as appropriate, and providing support to the victim throughout the process.
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2. Respecting people's decision not to drink
Certain faiths forbid or advise against alcohol consumption, which can inadvertently exclude employees from social events.
As ‘religion and belief’ is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, failing to cater for these employees can trigger claims of religious discrimination, encompassing both direct discrimination (whereby an employee is treated less favourably due to their religious beliefs regarding alcohol) and indirect discrimination (whereby a provision, criterion or practice is applied which disadvantages employees with these beliefs).
Additionally, some individuals may have or be recovering from dependency issues, while others may simply choose not to consume alcohol for their own personal reasons. While the legal risks may be less pronounced in these cases, failing to accommodate people’s personal choices can seriously damage morale, potentially leading to grievances, disengagement and even resignations.
It’s therefore essential that employers are inclusive and respect people’s decision not to drink by:
- Considering alternative options to traditional alcohol-focused gatherings. Consider hosting a range of gatherings that accommodate different preferences, including those who choose not to consume alcohol.
- Making it clear that attending or not attending work events is entirely a matter of personal choice. Employees should never feel obliged to consume alcohol or feel excluded for their decision to abstain, for whatever reason.
- Maintaining open lines of communication. Encourage employees to express their concerns or preferences regarding work events and alcohol during the planning stage and be ready to adapt your plans accordingly.
- Educating employees about various religious practices and the reasons behind them so that staff understand the importance of respecting different beliefs and don’t put pressure on colleagues to drink if they don’t want to.
- Incorporating inclusivity and diversity into your organisation’s policies and values, emphasising the importance of respecting religious beliefs and promoting an inclusive work environment.
3. Inappropriate conduct
Inappropriate conduct at work events involving alcohol extends beyond sexual advances and can encompass a range of other behaviours such as staff fallouts, confrontations, verbal altercations, and even physical fights.
These occurrences are often fuelled by alcohol and can have a significant impact on workplace relationships and team dynamics when back in the office.
To ensure alcohol doesn’t lead to “spirited” disputes and other conduct issues:
- Maintain a clear policy on alcohol consumption at work events. Implement drink limits and ensure that employees are aware of their responsibilities when it comes to drinking responsibly.
- Appoint responsible individuals to keep an eye on emerging issues. These individuals can monitor behaviour, defuse tensions, and intervene if necessary to prevent situations from escalating.
- Provide conflict resolution and communication training to employees, enabling them to handle disputes and disagreements constructively.
- Reminding employees of the company’s expectations regarding appropriate behaviour and the consequences for misconduct, both during and during the event. Emphasise that while it may be taking place outside of regular working hours, a work event remains an extension of the professional environment, and as such, any inappropriate behaviour may be subject to company policies, including potential disciplinary measures.
As with sexual misconduct, if an incident occurs, address it swiftly and impartially. Investigate the situation, document any evidence, and take appropriate disciplinary action if necessary.
Top tips for minimising alcohol-related issues at your next work event:
Balance is key: Strive to strike the right balance that allows employees to enjoy themselves while maintaining a respectful and safe atmosphere.
Proactive communication: Send a memo to employees in advance of work events, emphasising expected conduct and promoting responsible drinking.
Set limits on the amount of alcohol served. This includes evaluating whether an open bar is the best choice, as it may prompt issues and make it harder to challenge misconduct.
Switch it up: Don’t shy away from exploring the benefits of alcohol-free work events – they can be just as fun and ensure inclusivity for all employees.
Don’t forget health and safety: Recognise the health and safety implications of alcohol at work events, including increased risks of accidents and impaired decision-making. Promote responsible drinking, keep an eye on attendees, and arrange safe transportation options, such as taxis or designated drivers, to ensure employees make it home safety.
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