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Building Your Team Outdoors and Out of Court

As the weather turns warmer, many employers consider company picnics, softball teams, pool parties, and the like to boost morale and improve employee relations.  These are great ways for employers to build their teams, but it is also important to consider the potential liability from these actions.  Will someone drink too much at the company picnic and get into an accident on the way home?  Is the employer liable for workers’ compensation for softball injuries?  What about the risk of sexual harassment at the pool party?  Employers must plan carefully to minimize these risks.  Employers should strive both to minimize the risk of unfortunate events occurring in the first place and to minimize the likelihood the company could be responsible, all while maximizing the benefits of such events.

Minimizing the Likelihood of Mishaps

  • Unsurprisingly, when something goes wrong at a company event, alcohol is often the culprit.  Either skip the alcohol altogether or use a drink ticket system to keep consumption under control.  Do not serve alcohol to anyone who appears to have had too many and consider hiring a professional bartender or holding the event at a restaurant (assuming this is economically feasible).  Stop serving alcohol a few hours before the event ends to reduce the risk of car accidents on the way home.  If someone appears unable to drive, provide a taxi.
  • For sporting events, make sure you provide appropriate safety equipment.  Also, consider the rules; will you encourage sliding in softball?  You could even consider having employees sign a waiver releasing the company from liability if they are injured.  Of course, this may undermine the positive employee relations you hope to achieve when the employee sees your concern for your liability.  Also, it won’t protect you from workers’ compensation liability in many cases.
  • To limit the likelihood of sexual harassment, consider the nature of your event and the personalities at your company.  Will a pool party be good fun or an invitation for flirting and inappropriate comments?  Consider inviting your employees’ spouses and significant others, as employees are less likely to engage in inappropriate behavior in front of them.
  • Provide supervision.  Management should attend and be prepared to deal with any situations that arise.  You should remind management of the rules of harassment before the event is held.

Minimizing Liability

  • Invite everyone.  If it is a team-building event for a specific work group, invite everyone in that group.  Picking and choosing may lead to discrimination claims.  For example, if only men are invited to the golf outing, a woman in the same work group may claim she did not receive a promotion because she was not part of the “boys’ club.”
  • Keep it optional.  While everyone is invited, a key way to reduce liability is to keep the event optional.  If someone is injured and files a workers’ compensation claim, it may be possible to avoid liability by showing it was not a work event, but a social event.  Mandatory attendance hurts this argument.  Similarly, host your event offsite and outside of work hours to reduce the likelihood it will be viewed as a work event.

By taking a few precautions, it is possible to have fun with your team and avoid liability.  As the weather improves, take the opportunity to get to know your employees in a different context.  Teambuilding is valuable for improving morale and reducing turnover, so it is a worthwhile investment, but make sure you do it right.  Have fun!

Brody and Associates regularly advises its clients on all labor management issues and provides various related training programs.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.965.0560.