You’re invited! (but BYO party): Organising social events for employees

It is almost undisputed that the majority of Australian workers are spending more of their time at the workplace. It is therefore unsurprising that employees and employers are becoming more concerned with the quality of the time that employees spend at work and the relationships they have with their co-workers.

As a result, there has been an increased focus by employers on establishing a positive “workplace culture” through employer-sponsored social events and team-building activities that are intended to boost employee morale and increase overall productivity.

These social events can vary to a large degree depending on the size and the nature of the employer’s business. It can be something small, such as buying an employee a cake on their birthday, or can be on the larger scale, such as shutting the office down for half the day to take the employees to a long lunch.

Irrespective of what the occasion may be, employers should consider very carefully the real purpose for organising a work social event/activity and whether it adequately addresses the issues that their employees are facing.

It was recently reported that the Australian Border Force (ABF) made an attempt to address low morale issues that was not well received by their workforce.

The ABF conducted a survey of their branch staff which revealed that many of their employees were experiencing low morale in the workplace. In response, the ABF’s acting Commander sent an email to all branch staff notifying them that each state was to have a quarterly social activity arranged by their own staff. The email made suggestions for activities, such as morning tea, birthday celebrations, Christmas drinks, quarterly lunches, fitness activities or pizza events on Fridays.

The catch is that employees are expected to do these activities in their own time (i.e. during morning tea, lunch breaks or after work) and the activities are to be paid for by the staff themselves.

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) has publicly criticised the directive, stating that it is a “half-baked” response from ABF to the issues raised by the survey results and is “not the way to rebuild trust” between their employees and senior management.

One of the concerns raised by the CSPU is that the intensity and high pressure of the work environment at ABF means that employees already have close enough working relationships that there is no need for them to be directed to socialise together outside of work, at their own expense.

Practically speaking, it is not always possible for an employer to devote significant business time and financial resources to social events for their employees. There are many factors to consider, such as the industry they work in, the risk of liability for employee activities outside of work, and where the funds are actually sourced from (e.g. tax-payer money). In these circumstances, smaller gestures may be more reasonable, such as daily team catch-ups or allowing employees to finish work a little bit earlier on a Friday (if there is no urgent work to be done) with the option of staying for some team socializing.

In our experience, much of the resistance to these types of changes can be avoided if employees are involved in the decision-making process. This does not always mean granting every request for a party, but it encourages employees to make reasonable suggestions on how to resolve these issues and allows employers to be honest and open about the reasonableness of any proposed solutions. A Social Committee can also give employees a platform to make suggestions and discuss best approaches.

Shane Koelmeyer is a leading workplace relations lawyer and Director at Workplace Law. Workplace Law is a specialist law firm providing employers with legal advice, training and representation in all aspects of workplace relations, employment-related matters and WH&S.

02 9256 7500 | sydney@workplacelaw.com.au

Information provided in this blog is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Workplace Law does not accept liability for any loss or damage arising from reliance on the content of this blog. Where applicable, liability is limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation.

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