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For many reasons, some companies prohibit alcohol at summer events
Human resource professionals typically have their guard up for end-of-year holiday parties but not as much for summer outings, even though both often have the same culprit responsible for sexual harassment claims and just plain bad feelings: too much drinking.
"Most employers that I know have prohibited alcoholic beverages at company outings," said Brian Hall, an attorney with Porter Wright in Columbus, Ohio. Doing so avoids or reduces a multitude of issues, he said. "If employees—or their family members—wish to imbibe, they can gather together off premises on their own time following the outing."
Philippe Weiss, managing director of Seyfarth Shaw at Work in Chicago, wouldn't prohibit drinking at summer outings. But he would limit the number of drinks employees are served and designate some managers to not drink so that they can monitor the event and put a stop any misbehavior that might give rise to visits to HR.
Other summer events lead to complaints because too much skin is shown, such as at pool parties, or games can lead to too much physical contact.
"HR's primary role with summer outings should be to clearly communicate the company's expectations as to how employees should behave at the event," said Shayna Balch, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Phoenix and Los Angeles. "HR should also be prepared to respond to any event incidents and issue corrective action, as appropriate, once employees return to the workplace."
Reduce Risk of Sexual Harassment Claims
Even when employees are sober, company pool parties are particularly prone to sexual harassment claims, according to Weiss. One boss held an annual summer picnic party at his hilltop home on the West coast. It was a huge success until the year that he opened up the pool to everyone. Then there were "a bunch of complaints," Weiss said. People felt uncomfortable if they didn't want to swim. In the pool there was more physical contact than some wanted. During a water volleyball game, one employee gave a co-worker a bear hug. Someone subsequently complained to HR that there was sexual harassment.
Just wearing bathing suits and bikinis makes some people uncomfortable, and some consider such attire to be immodest because of their religious views.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Accommodating Religion, Belief and Spirituality in the Workplace]
Drinking could lead to inappropriate behavior such as skinny-dipping or horseplay, which can be dangerous, Weiss noted.
And at one pool party, managers made comments about the physical attributes of co-workers and linked the characteristics to the employees' national origin and race, leading to a complaint.
"When employees are away from the formal office setting, it is easy for them to forget about workplace rules and expectations," Balch said. "As a result, some employees might make inappropriate comments or off-color jokes at a summer outing that they wouldn't otherwise make in the workplace. When this type of behavior takes place, it can lead to an increase in claims following the outing—particularly claims of sexual harassment or harassment based on other protected characteristics. Employers also run the risk of injury claims, especially when the outing involves activities of a physical nature."
Keep Behavior Workplace-Appropriate
A frat-party mentality can set in at summer outings when the booze is flowing, Weiss cautioned. And some themes are offensive, like at one summer outing where employees played "pin the tail on the intern." There was a Velcro tail, and an intern was chased around. "It was completely inappropriate," he said.
Party themes may be problematic depending on how people dress, Weiss said. He recalled one company where employees dressed in togas without much else. Another toga party had the game Twister, leading to co-workers twisting around each other while scantily clad—two bad ideas. "Game of Thrones" themes can lead to similar states of undress, as the show has racy and headline-producing risqué scenes, he noted.
At one event, a company egged on employees to "mud wrestle your meanest manager." One employee complained to HR over the physical contact. And the managers weren't too thrilled, either. Employees were asked to vote for the meanest manager in each workgroup, unbeknownst to the managers.
Anytime there is an activity that involves a fight—friendly or not, even football—there may be a problem, Weiss noted. If you can't imagine the physical contact happening on the floor of the lobby or conference room because it shouldn't happen there, it shouldn't happen at the outing, either.
At another summer outing, employees were divided into teams and participated in a scavenger hunt in a forest. It sounded like fun, except that one team split up to find more items and a teammate wound up lost in the woods for seven hours. The employees formed their own search party because they did not want to call the police. The employee who got lost was "pretty upset by the event," Weiss noted, saying she ended up leaving the company, as the outing made her "think twice about where she worked."
Don't Make the Outing Mandatory
If there is pressure to attend the outing, a company could be in a deeper legal hole if things go wrong. And employees who don't attend for religious reasons (if, for example, there are dietary or wardrobe concerns) may look later for signs of favoritism in work assignments for all those who attended. Those who opt not to attend should be applauded for making the best decision for themselves, Weiss said.
Most employees "really look forward to these events," he noted. HR should not "dampen their anticipation." However, sending information to people in advance of the event about expected conduct and setting a responsible agenda can be valuable.
But keep in mind that the positive employee relations that are expected to result from a summer outing "can easily be diluted by requiring legalistic and overly broad waivers and releases to be signed by everyone before they can participate," Hall said. "Too much effort at avoiding liability can make it difficult to have fun, which presumably is the main purpose of the activity."
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