Spencer West Employment Partner Justin Murray asks – Are work event policies becoming too “woke” or are employers just being asked to “be considerate”?
During the Covid-19 pandemic, employees became accustomed to working from home, and that has continued for many either fully home-based or working on a hybrid basis. Face time with colleagues has reduced. For some, a “team building” event in these circumstances is a welcome event. However, for others, the notion of a “team building” event, whether a meeting at the office, a meal, a night out, or an away day may now not be. That could be for good reason, or it may simply be a very unwelcome disruption to the new norm (where attendance, even in the office, can be viewed as optional).
Can the employee refuse to attend a work event; or can an employer force them to attend? The answer must be found in a balanced approach by both. If either side is unreasonable, it is possible that disputes (often unnecessary disputes), will arise.
What are the respective rights?
Employers can ask, even insist, on employees carrying out lawful orders, and that may include, for example, following a standard clause in an employment contract that the employee work such hours and perform such duties as are reasonable and necessary for the full and proper performance of their role for the benefit of the business. Such a clause must encapsulate “team-building” for the benefit of the business. Of course, employment laws (found in the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the Equality Act 2010) will protect individuals from being forced to do anything that is unlawful, and for something to be “unlawful” it need only be in contravention of the employment protections employees are entitled to.
What is the balance?
Care must be taken by employers when choosing what events to plan: where to have an event (for example, not everyone is comfortable in a pub or a bar, and it may offend their religious views, or in other cases their health and safety); what type of food/drinks (for example, not everyone is comfortable with meat/fish/alcohol), what time (some of the workforce may have more family responsibilities, or other commitments related to their protected characteristics, and may not be able to afford much time after the normal working day, and so may be directly, or even indirectly affected); need the event involve a night away (for example, maybe the balance of the sexes in the office is not such that a female would feel comfortable).
It is not being too “woke” to give consideration to these factors, it is being all-inclusive, and indeed is necessary.
If such consideration and planning is put into events, all employees should be comfortable to attend and participate, or feel just as comfortable to attend but excuse themselves from certain activities. Non-attendance for good reason should also not be held against an employee (and such absences and reasons should be given further consideration when planning future events) and any valuable work insights missed out should be compensated for in some way, for example an “outcomes” update.
On the other hand, employees who are unreasonable and refuse to attend events citing unnecessary, unreasonable or exaggerated “woke” reasons (which are really an excuse as opposed to a genuine concern) when every effort has been made to be all-inclusive, will exclude themselves, and will miss out on valuable work and team-building efforts. If they have a good reason, they should bring it to their employer’s attention in a reasonable, non-combative manner aimed at resolution, not conflict).
There is nothing wrong with team building and arranging events for this purpose; but employers must act in a reasonable and all-inclusive manner, and when considering their ability/wish to attend, employees too should be reasonable. Attendance at events and participation in any activities should be comfortable. Forcing anyone to participate when it offends them or to make them feel uncomfortable for not participating can create a “hostile” working environment (even if outside the workplace) and could be actionable as discrimination, bullying or harassment and/or unfair dismissal, if the employee were so severely affected, they were forced to leave, or were dismissed.
Justin was recently featured on this topic within Compliance Week as they asked whether an employee can refuse to attend a work event. The question was considered in light of a £200,000 personal injury claim being made against PwC after the claimant “lost half his skull in a round of “pub golf,” where he and others were encouraged to down a drink at each of the nine bars they visited”.
Justin was quoted as saying:
employers can insist on attendance so long as employees are not forced to do anything unlawful and/or the event is not discriminatory (for example, the activity does not go on so late it makes it difficult for workers with children to arrange childcare).
Further, if an employee continually fails to attend work events, so much so his/her absence is having a detrimental effect on his/her ability to perform the role, an employer might instruct that person to attend. If he/she fails to attend when directed to do so, it could become a disciplinary matter.
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