Almost all of us have been to the yearly company football game, company barbeque, or happy hour. Organizations often think these events create closeness, trust, a sense of "teamwork", or even a sense of family. We love a good burger and a beer as much as anyone but in our experience the injuries, harassment and other complaints that can come from company social events may cause problems for employers. And we find the defense that the events were "voluntary" may not hold up.
First, understand that the desire to attend company social events is far from universal. Every year in December business advice columnists talk about the many emails they receive from people asking if they have to attend the annual Christmas party. A lot of people don't want to spend part of their holiday with coworkers. These complaints are not surprising to us; we often get the same question from our coaching clients. But people do attend - why?
One columnist, Allison Green (2010) "Why you should attend your office holiday party" advises people that company parties are often "unofficially compulsory" and "borderline mandatory." And as she phrases quite well: "It's entirely possible that your boss doesn't care - but it's also entirely possible that he or she does (secretly or not so secretly). Even bosses who claim not to care often notice and it matters at some level, so you're safer assuming that yours will take note it you don't make an appearance."
Consider legal aspects. One attorney, Andrew Simpson (2009) "Employers must keep company picnics and team-building activities voluntary," warns that states vary in how strict they are in terms of considering injuries at company recreational events as work-related. He goes on to explain several independent conditions which can make these seemingly entertaining events work-related, one of which is "When the employer expressly or impliedly requires participation." In an article on attending social events, "10 reasons bosses should attend the company holiday part" in Fast Company, the author advises "Social events may be optional for hourly employees and junior members of the team but not so for senior leaders - it's what you do." He is not alone in making that assumption.
At one time we felt that company events were good for the bonding they can create. That opinion changed many years ago; one major reason was the realization that many people feel compelled to attend. The compulsory nature can be affected by the individual's role within the organization, their relationship with their supervisor, the size and culture of the company, and many other factors. For example, in our 30+ years of experience working with organizations, we find that as people climb the corporate ladder, participation in company sponsored events is more and more expected of them. A few years ago we served as expert on a case where we supported the plaintiff, the family of a man who had died as a result of an injury at a company sponsored sporting event. The defendant, his employer, argued that the event was voluntary; we argued that because the deceased was a member of management it was not.
In summary attorneys handling work-related injuries, harassment, etc. would do well to recognize that in many cases "work-related" may apply to what looks like non-work activities; and this goes doubly for partners, executives, top managers and other high-ranking people. More proactively, we recommend that employers should consider if the potential loss offsets the possible gains of those activities. We are not intending to be Scrooge when we tell our clients: "Everyone appreciates a little extra thank you in their paycheck, why don't you skip the party, take the budget you had allotted for the party and give everyone a small bonus."
Rose Porterfield Group (RPG) has over 30 years of experience providing Business Performance and Human Resource services. As experts in human behavior, we provide litigation support strategy and testimony for attorneys and corporations. Offering unbiased, detailed, and objective expert opinion on all aspects of human behavior in the workplace, we can help determine the facts, motivations, and human factors involved in the case.
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