The Usual? A Refreshing Take On The Workplace Social

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The Usual? A Refreshing Take On The Workplace Social

Key Contact: Juliette Franklin

Juliette Franklin, considers the ESG risks of work-related drinking and the benefits of going beyond the bottle

We may have moved on from the Mad Men-style lavish corporate drinking of the past, but the work social is alive and well – and where there’s a social, in the UK at least, there’s a bar.

So is work-related drinking an innocent ice-breaker, a useful lubricant for building team cohesion and workforce morale? Or it is a recipe for lurid allegations, court cases and ruined careers?

The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) recently shone a spotlight on the issue in its poll of over 1000 managers in April, widely reported in the BBC and elsewhere. According to the results, 29% had seen inappropriate behaviour or harassment at parties, while 42% felt that work social events should focus on activities other than alcohol.

“If we are perpetuating an unhealthy relationship with alcohol in work, that’s going to not only cause additional problems but also mask problems that already exist”

As companies increasingly align their activities with environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles, both they and their workers are scrutinising the obligations of businesses in creating a healthy society – both in the workplace and beyond it.

Where does alcohol fit in?

Acuity Law Legal Director Juliette Franklin points out that alcohol is often used to mask deeper problems, such as stress or mental health issues.

“If we are perpetuating an unhealthy relationship with alcohol in work, that’s going to not only cause additional problems but also mask problems that already exist,” she says.

As our collective societal appreciation of wellbeing has hit the workplace, encouraging employees to drink seems increasingly out of step. Over the course of her career, Juliette has seen companies’ understanding of corporate social responsibility reflected in the diminished importance of alcohol in social events, along with an increased need for social activities to have a wider business benefit than being just “a jolly”.

Yet it’s not hard to summon up examples from the media where issues in wider society, such as sexual harassment, have gone hand-in-hand with over-indulgence, as alcohol persists in both causing and intensifying any temptation towards unacceptable and potentially illegal behaviour.

“Employers sometimes forget there is a blurred line between work and work socials. If they have arranged the event, provided the funds and booked the entertainment, their liability doesn’t stop just because people have left the work building”

And the hazards go beyond the risk of sexual harassment taking place.

An exclusion zone

“There is a danger that we are going to exclude certain sections of the workforce if drinking is encouraged, or if social events revolve around alcohol,” she warns.

The list of people left out when alcohol is the main event is long. Crucially, it often correlates with groups already marginalised in the workplace: people with health problems, including mental health issues, who may find that alcohol is not compatible with medication or exacerbates symptoms; pregnant women or those undergoing fertility treatment; those with childcare responsibilities who either cannot attend late night events, or who need to get up early; and members of religious groups for whom alcohol is prohibited.

“I think we’ve moved on from a society that says if you want to succeed, you need to be the last man standing on a social night out or you’re not showing commitment to the business and you’re not going to progress because all the conversations happen when people have gone to bed,” she explains.

“Still, employers sometimes forget there is a blurred line between work and work socials. If they have arranged the event, provided the funds, and booked the entertainment, their liability doesn’t stop just because people have left the work building.”

She adds: “We have seen employers sued for the treatment employees have received while on a work social or even sued for personal injuries sustained when someone was excessively intoxicated after a free bar.”

Employees, on the other hand, often underestimate the importance of behaving well on a work social, exposing themselves to misconduct claims as the inhibitions drop.

Living well

As the CMI cautions companies to control the amount of alcohol available in work events, many employers, like Acuity Law, are already planning events with an uplifting activity in the foreground.  

“It’s about promoting the environmental, social and wellbeing benefits, rather than alienating a huge section of our workforce”

“It’s nice if you can use social events to promote the environment and wellbeing. If people are doing pottery together, that’s good for the soul. Or if they do a litter pick and then go to a bar and have wine afterwards, that’s so much more positive, and it’s not just about the unhealthy side of things,” says Juliette.

“It’s about promoting the environmental, social and wellbeing benefits, rather than alienating a huge section of our workforce.”

There is also a legal imperative to thinking about inclusion when planning social events.

“There’s an episode of Friends where the smokers in Rachel’s workplace go out and talk about deals, and so she starts smoking. That resonates with me from a discrimination perspective,” says Juliette, who also chairs the Acuity Diversity and Inclusion committee.

“It’s a culture you are promoting as an employer: if you’re not in the in-crowd you’ll lose out on jobs. Employers may be exposing themselves to liability,” she says.

“These seemingly small cultural differences can have a massive effect on the bottom line of the business”

A culture of socialising to succeed could lead to workers returning from parental leave, working part-time, or avoiding social events for care responsibilities discovering that the best customers or assignments have been allocated elsewhere, for example.  

Ultimately, says Juliette, planning an inclusive and risk-free social event is about thinking beyond alcohol, and considering what factors might be unintentionally keeping people away.

“If people feel left out, not part of a team, that causes turnover of staff. These seemingly small cultural differences can have a massive effect on the bottom line of the business. Why not finish early once a month so everyone can attend, making sure that if business decisions are being made, you are making them at a time when everyone can be present?” she says.

But this doesn’t absolve employees for taking agency over their careers, she adds.

“There is a responsibility on employees to ensure that if you want to progress and do well you have to take some responsibility for your own actions. It’s a two-way street – businesses need to take responsibility and promote a healthy social environment in our workplace, but we as individuals must recognise we are in control of our own destinies – and that we have choices.”

If you would like to speak to us about any of the issues raised in this article, please contact a member of the Acuity Law Employment team.

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