Holding a safe employee event

Q:  Recently, we had a COVID-safety outing where all employees were invited to a cookout and bonfire.  Most of our employees and family members had a great time.  A few employees drank too much.  I worry about inappropriate behavior and drinking and driving.  Do we ban these events altogether?

A:  Work-related functions can be tough to navigate for many.  Guidelines for what is acceptable and what is not acceptable can help. Sharing some ground rules for behavior, in advance, is one way to minimize liability.

Employees in leadership roles often set the tone for these events.  If a company leader consumes a lot of alcohol and behaves unprofessionally, employees will often assume that is the norm, and begin to think that excessive drinking and/or inappropriate conduct is acceptable behavior. Even if ground rules are discussed in advance, if the leaders don’t support those ground rules at the event, then the ground rules are often dismissed.

Many companies have moved away from “open bar” type of events and instead offer a one or two alcoholic drinks per employee.  Others make arrangements in advance for rideshare vouchers or alternative ways of getting employees and guests home safely.  Some companies hold events at hotels and reserve a block of rooms at a discounted rate so employees don’t drive home impaired.  Alcohol-focused events are a challenge for some, especially those who may struggle with addiction.

Still other companies have celebrations where there is less of a focus on alcohol and more of a focus on an activity or an event.  I have one client that has a “family fun day” at a field behind their office park.  At their family fun day, this client offers activities like face painting, pie eating, hay rides and pumpkin painting.  I even have a few clients who have moved away from the evening events and host luncheons, brunches, lunch-hour harbor cruises or the like.  Some of my clients have decided have to eliminate employee celebrations altogether, and instead ask employees to participate in some type of charitable event (e.g., working in a food pantry, cleaning up a local park or painting the exterior of an animal shelter).

No two companies are exactly alike when it comes to employee events.  However, the safety of employees and their guests should always be considered.

Companies offer these types of events to show appreciation for their employees.  It is also a way to get to know colleagues in a different, more social setting.

Banning social events seems like a severe decision, but re-thinking the type of event may be wise.  Discussing ground rules in advance may also be a way to better set expectations.  Company events are not like college reunions.  Your question is particularly timely since many companies are planning their summer outings.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

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