The Chartered Management Institute (‘CMI’) has issued a warning to businesses to limit the amount of alcohol served at social events in an effort to prevent inappropriate behaviour towards colleagues, stressing that alcohol should not be the focus of such occasions. The caution follows a survey of 1,009 business managers between 20 and 26 April 2023, which found that almost one in three had witnessed harassment or other inappropriate behaviour at work gatherings. The chief executive of the CMI, Ann Francke, emphasised that, while work socials are important for team building, managers should remember that they have a responsibility towards their workers to ensure their safety.
That responsibility is in fact a legal duty, and one that not only applies “at the office”, but extends both outside of the usual workplace, and outside of working hours. Under the Equality Act 2010 (‘EqA’), anything done by an employee in the course of their employment can be treated as having been done by their employer. Wherever and whenever colleagues are gathering can be considered as an extension of the workplace and so, if an employee is injured or harassed at such an event, the employer could be found vicariously liable and face claims of negligence, breach of health and safety, and/or discrimination.
Further, as discussed in our recent article, the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill 2022-23 is currently before parliament seeking to introduce an additional duty on employers to take all reasonable steps necessary to prevent harassment of their employees by third parties, and to give employment tribunals the power to uplift compensation relating to sexual harassment up to 25% where an employer is found to have breached this duty.
As you will likely have seen in the news, John Allan, Tesco’s chairman and former president of the Confederation of British Industry (‘CBI’), has recently been accused of inappropriate behaviour at work events by four separate women. These allegations include inappropriate touching at Tesco’s AGM in 2022 and at the CBI’s annual dinner in 2019 (while he was its president!) and making inappropriate comments at both of those events and on two further occasions. Mr Allan denies the allegations against him and a spokesperson for Tesco has stated that the company has received no formal or informal complaints concerning Mr Allan’s conduct and that Tesco “are committed to ensuring all colleagues are respected and feel safe at work.” Mr Allan has announced that he will leave his role at Tesco in June. Meanwhile, the CBI has suspended its programme of upcoming dinners and meetings pending investigation into these allegations (as well as other, separate, allegations).
Employers are likely to be found liable for actions committed by their employees while they are working (including work events), whether or not such acts were conducted with the employer’s knowledge or approval. It is not enough to show that an employee acted in a manner expressly prohibited by the employer, and it is essential that employers can show that they have taken active steps to prevent such behaviour from occurring in the first place.
The EqA also extends this protection to job applicants, employees, workers, employee shareholders, and a wider category of individuals who are self-employed (where their contract requires them to perform work personally). It is vital that employers understand not only what their obligations are, but also how those obligations extend beyond their immediate workforce and beyond the typical office location and hours. Policies alone do not provide adequate protection for employees against harassment and will not amount to a meaningful defence for an employer facing allegations in court. Employers found to fall short of their obligations can found liable to pay a victimised employee compensation for any financial loss suffered as a result of harassment, compensation for injury to feelings, aggravated damages, plus an uplift of up to 25% for sexual harassment claims.
So, next time your business is planning a social, take some time to consider what steps could be taken to keep your workers safe. Perhaps you choose an activity that involves little or no alcohol, provide refresher training in the run up and remind everyone of the company policies, consequences of breach and how to report inappropriate behaviour.
If you would like any guidance relating to harassment in the workplace or in relation to conduct management at work events, or assistance with reviewing or creating internal policies and procedures, assessing risks or handling complaints, please reach out to a member of our Employment Team who will be happy to help.
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