An employee at PwC’s UK branch has recently filed a lawsuit against the firm for more than £200,000 after he injured himself at a post-work drink event in 2019. This has sparked a broader conversation about the rights of employees to refuse attendance at work-related social events, particularly those outside of business hours. Employment Partner, Susan Thompson, and Associate, Andrew Czechowski, examine the rights of employees when it comes to work social events.
An employer does not have a statutory right to compel an employee to attend a work social event outside of their contractual working hours. However, it is common to find clauses in contracts of employment which require employees (particularly salaried employees) to devote time in addition to their contractual hours. This could include attending work social events.
Generally, an employee is free to decide whether they wish to attend a work social event or not. Attending work social events is, however, considered important for those working in the service sector, when business is primarily developed through personal relationships and introductions at events.
If an employee continually fails to attend work events and that is having a detrimental impact on their ability to perform their role, the employer may instruct an employee to attend a certain event. If they fail to attend when directed to do so, it could become a disciplinary matter. An employee’s continued failure could also be considered poor performance and a capability procedure may be utilised by an employer to encourage improved attendance at work social events.
Employers should note that following disciplinary and/or capability procedures to improve attendance at work social events would be an aggressive step to take. Employers should take disciplinary action only in exceptional circumstances and on a case-by-case basis.
Employers should also be mindful of whether the employee has a protected characteristic, as instructing them to attend may be discriminatory. For example, if the event involves sporting participation and the employee cannot take part because of a physical impairment and the employer insists that they take part, they may face a complaint of disability discrimination and/or harassment.
If the work event involves drinking alcohol (such as wine tasting) but the employee refuses to attend because of their religious belief (which precludes them from drinking alcohol), taking disciplinary action against them may be considered religious belief discrimination.
Lastly, since work events regularly take place in the evenings, requiring attendance also exposes employers to potential indirect discrimination claims from female and part-time employees with childcare responsibilities. Employers need therefore to ensure work social events take place both in and outside of usual working hours.
These comments published in Compliance Week, and can be seen here.