Don’t Get Burned by Summertime Events

June 23, 2016 10:16 pm

Don’t Get Burned by Summertime Events

summertime events

The summer season is upon us, and many employers look forward to planning events such as barbeques, baseball games, and water park trips. These outings provide excellent opportunities to reward employees, socialize with families, and enjoy time away from the normal pressures of the office…but as a manager or HR professional, this is not the time to let down your guard.

Employer Liability

Employees and managers alike tend to think that “what happens away from the office, stays away from the office.” But under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer may be held liable for acts committed by employees within the course and scope of their employment, whether at the workplace or not. Furthermore, the employee does not need to be engaged in his/her actual job responsibilities to be deemed “under the control of the employer.” Participation or attendance at a summer party that is sponsored or endorsed by the employer may create this liability. Liability is strengthened if the event is mandatory or if the employer may be seen as benefiting from the event, through awards presentations or discussion of company programs or goals.

Sexual Harassment

Summer events are perfect environments for employees to relax from the formal dress code of your office, but bathing suits or other revealing clothing can easily open the door to suggestive comments or behavior. A one-time incident at a summer picnic may be severe enough to create liability, or may be cited as part of a pervasive pattern of inappropriate conduct.

Remember than an employer may also be liable for harassing conduct by family members and event-site workers. So even if your employees are on their best behavior, you could be seen as responsible for the actions of third-parties if you knew or should have known, and failed to take corrective action.

Employee Injuries

Workers’ compensation typically does not cover injuries arising out of voluntary participation in off-duty events, but if a social event is considered to be work-related, workers’ compensation insurance may apply to injured employees. (California Labor Code section 3600).

Also, a third-party, such as an employee’s guest, could sue the employer for an injury sustained at a work party, whether or not employees were in the course and scope of employment.

You may reduce this risk by avoiding high-risk activities such as water skiing, and ensuring that only responsible individuals operate barbeque grills and other cooking equipment. Keep a close eye on bounce houses, obstacle courses and races, and any water activities.

Alcohol Consumption

The risks for harassment claims and injuries are heightened when employees consume alcohol at social events. In a 2004 legal claim involving liability for injuries caused by drunk driving after a company party, the court stated, “Existing California case law clearly establishes that an employer may be found liable for its employee’s torts as long as the proximate cause of the injury occurred within the scope of employment. It is irrelevant that foreseeable effects of the employer’s negligent conduct occurred at a time the employee was no longer acting within the scope of his or her employment.”

Social Media

Ever-present “selfies” and social media posts increase the likelihood that images and recordings of less-than-professional behavior will be shared outside of the company, damaging company image and employee credibility. There are several social media pages dedicated to “Embarrassing Party Photos” and “Party Fails,” not to mention employees’ personal accounts.

HR Best Practices

So what’s a good HR Manager to do? You can help to ensure that employee have a great time while protecting the interests of your company with the following steps:

  • Clearly inform employees that events are voluntary.
  • Minimize activities such as awards, goal-setting, or review of the year’s accomplishments. Save these discussions for workplace meetings.
  • Remind employees and managers about appropriate conduct, anti-harassment policies, and social media policies.
  • Shape your social media policy in advance and explain the expectations to all employees. Be prepared to address inappropriate social media posts.
  • Consider no alcohol, a cash bar, or drink tickets to limit alcohol consumption.
  • Make arrangements for sober transportation (taxi, Uber, designated drivers).
  • Follow standard procedures if an employee is injured including providing the DWC-1 Form within one working day and notifying your workers’ compensation carrier of the incident.
  • Promptly investigate any complaints of harassment or inappropriate behavior.
  •  Enlist the help of other managers to watch for inappropriate behavior and excessive drinking, and take necessary steps. (Yes, HR does need to be the “police” sometimes for the protection of all involved.)

Review Your Heat Illness Procedures

It may not be officially summer on the calendar, but the Valley heat has certainly arrived. If you have any employees working outdoors, be sure they are updated on your Heat Illness Prevention procedures including cool-down recovery periods in the shade, drinking cool water on a regular basis, and responding to signs and symptoms of heat illness. When temperatures exceed 95 degrees, supervisors have a more proactive responsibility to monitor employees and encourage them to drink water.

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