Last reviewed 17 November 2023

As we approach the end of the year, many employers will be looking back at the successes in the business over the last 12 months, and thinking of ways they can celebrate this with their employees. Traditionally, a Christmas party has been a focal point of this, generally involving a late night, alcohol and frivolity. But are such events truly inclusive? In this article, Stacie Cheadle, Croner-i employment law researcher and writer, looks at work-related social events and presents our top tips for ensuring they are inclusive to all.

Why work related-social events are important

Holding a social event for employees can have a number of benefits, including:

  • helping employees to feel appreciated and valued

  • increased employee engagement

  • increased loyalty to the organisation

  • increased understanding of the organisation’s culture

  • reduced turnover and lower recruitment costs.

Whilst it’s true you cannot please everyone all of the time and in any event, not all employees may be able to attend whatever is organised, there are certain areas that should be considered to ensure the event is inclusive and open to all.

The risks

Although work-related social events are intended to be a positive and well meaning event, there are risks that can arise even with these good intentions.

First, there is the concern that discrimination might take place, whether this is because an individual feels they are being treated less favourably because of a protected characteristic or where they feel harassed because they are subjected to unwanted conduct relating to their protected characteristic. Key protected characteristics to think about are religion or belief, disability and pregnancy. Therefore, it is important to consider the impact any plans could have on individuals with a protected characteristic, and what alternatives there are to avoid this.

Work-related social events are also likely to be seen as an extension of the attendees’ employment, and so employers should be aware of the risk of liability for any actions carried out by employees at these events as there will be a close connection between their employment, the event and any actions undertaken at the event. As a result, unlawful acts such as discrimination, harassment or physical or sexual assaults can be attributed to the organisation, which is then liable for compensation or damages.

Ask staff what they want

Whilst there are external factors to consider when it comes to the timing of an event, eg when the location is available to book, the normal dates of festive periods, etc, inclusivity is also a consideration when it comes to the timing of the event. Certain dates and times are likely to be unsuitable for certain employees, eg a Friday night event may not be suitable for those with childcare responsibilities or with certain religious beliefs. The same applies for weekend dates too.

These requirements must be measured against the risk of impact on workplace productivity. For example, an event immediately after the working day during the middle of the week will see a high attendance rate as employees attend the event immediately after work. There is a high possibility, however, that the following working day will be detrimentally impacted by the event and could result in high absence rates or poor productivity.

Consider carrying out a staff survey to choose a date which suits the most number of attendees. Once you have identified a date that works for most people, provide sufficient notice to staff to ensure the majority of invitees can attend.

This survey can also be used to gather ideas for the event, either by an open question or by providing a list of suggestions.

Choose a welcoming name

Right from the start, the name of the event itself will reflect on whether it is truly inclusive. Choosing a name that is open to all is strongly recommended, such as an “end of year celebration” or a “let's celebrate it's Friday”.

Even a name that is intended to be playful could be problematic, especially where it excludes certain groups. For example, an entire gender could be alienated by an event called “Ladies’ Night”.

Find a suitable location

The location of the event needs to be selected carefully to ensure it’s accessible and suitable for all employees to attend. Some considerations to be taken into account include:

  • how close the event is to the workplace and employees’ homes, and whether it is accessible by various means of transport (providing transport to and from the workplace can relieve some of these concerns)

  • accessibility and lifts for disabled employees

  • the availability of seating and places to rest

  • the location’s environment and culture (eg a pub may create an assumption that the event has been organised to encourage drinking alcohol)

  • entry specifications, such as whether underage staff are allowed in.

Don’t leave anyone out

When inviting employees to the event, it’s not always wise to simply rely on an email distribution list. Those that do not attend the office weekly or at all, or who are absent due to family friendly leave or sickness, should get an invite so be sure to use a means of invitation that includes these staff members too. A failure to invite these employees could lead to risks such as employees feeling isolated, increased poor mental health and complaints of discrimination.

Provide a variety of refreshments

With many different dietary requirements observed by individuals, planning an event where food and drink will be provided can be a minefield.

Where food is going to be available at the event, a range of refreshments should be provided taking into account religious observance and dietary requirements. Asking employees in advance to let the event organiser know if they have any dietary requirements will help to ensure everyone’s needs are met.

There is also a risk where free, alcoholic drinks are provided to employees. Not only does this not take into account non-drinkers, whether by choice or through religious observance, it also creates a risk that the organisation is seen to condone and encourage excessive alcohol drinking. This will create a close connection between acts that are carried out when an employee is under the influence of alcohol and their employment, creating vicarious liability for the organisation.

Alternatives could be to provide drinks vouchers, so the employee has a free choice of what they have, or subsiding the costs of all drinks. Where free drinks are available, there should be a sufficient amount of non-alcoholic soft drinks provided throughout the event to ensure all refreshment needs are catered for.

Remind staff members that inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated

To limit the risk, organisations can take steps beforehand:

  • implement a work-related social events policy within the workplace policies

  • send a letter to all members of staff reminding them that their behaviour should remain professional and appropriate

  • have a workplace notice on appropriate conduct at the event.

Ensuring staff understand the rules, and what behaviour is expected of them during the event, enables any rule breaches or inappropriate behaviour to be addressed on their return to work. Encourage them to come forward to an appropriate manager if they think these rules are not being followed.