The Equality and Human Rights Commission has just published new technical guidance on sexual harassment and harassment at work. David Sheppard and Elizabeth Smith take this opportunity to comment on a recent decision by a law firm to stop subsidising its staff ski trips, and remind employers what to consider when organising social events.
Magic Circle law firm, Slaughter & May, has reportedly banned subsidising future staff ski trips, after a male lawyer was allegedly accused of sexually harassing a female colleague during a trip last year.
This move by Slaughter & May follows a wider risk review of other off-site social events, in which ski trips were seen as “high risk”. If you are an employer, this is yet another reminder of your potential vicarious liability for your employees’ discriminatory behaviour at social events, even if the link with work is tenuous.
What does the law say?
As an employer, you could face discrimination, harassment and victimisation claims under the Equality Act, if the unlawful act took place within the “course of the employees’ employment” and if you cannot demonstrate you took reasonable steps to prevent such unacceptable behaviour.
You should be mindful that even partial funding or organisation of a staff social event has potentially sufficient connection with work so as to make you liable for any actions of your employees.
A few things that you should consider when organising social events for your employees:
1. You should maintain, and make available for review, a clear policy so that your employees are aware of the kind of behaviour which is acceptable at such events. Having a clear policy and providing training on acceptable behaviour in the workplace may be enough to demonstrate that you took reasonable steps to prevent the type of unacceptable behaviour which could give rise to a claim under the Equality Act. Employees should be reminded of this policy ahead of any event taking place.
2. If alcohol is provided during the event, it may be helpful to keep tabs on staff drinks via drinks tokens, and make sure plenty of non-alcoholic beverages and food is available. This would ensure individuals who do not drink alcohol, for religious or other cultural, health or philosophical reasons, or are unable to drink due to childcare responsibilities, are not deterred from attending.
3. Consider nominating a member of management to refrain from consuming alcohol at the event, in order to deal with any emergencies or incidents that may arise. For example, Linklaters, another Magic Circle law firm, has launched a sober supervisor scheme, where at least one supervisor shall stay sober at any event where alcohol is served.
4. Invite all employees to the event, even if they are absent from work due to sickness, maternity or paternity leave.
5. Be prepared to deal with any inappropriate behaviour in line with company policy and be consistent in how the policy is applied.
The actions of both Slaughter & May and Linklaters demonstrate the cautious steps high profile employers are now taking when organising social events – the boozy works Christmas party or Summer BBQ may soon become a thing of the past.
The timing of this story is also coincidental, as the Equality and Human Rights Commission has published this week of new technical guidance on sexual harassment and harassment at work, which all employers should take note of.