Why firms need an alcohol policy for industry events

With Christmas approaching, Construction News examines the importance of staff safety at social gatherings

Earlier this year, Build UK released a template drugs-and-alcohol policy to be used by companies across the construction sector. The document, designed to be copied entirely or adapted for use, had been circulated among members in 2022 but was updated this year with a section focused on corporate functions.

With advice such as “be aware of your own limits” and “not drink[ing] to excess”, the template warns that drinking too much alcohol and behaving inappropriately could lead to disciplinary action.

“Companies need to be better and if you report things it needs to be taken seriously”

Faye Allen, JS Held

Construction News has been told of several instances where the drinking culture at industry events has been excessive and left participants, particularly female attendees, feeling uncomfortable or in danger.

One woman, who asked not to be named, told CN that, while working on a project for a contractor, her team went on a night out where a lot of alcohol was consumed. “We all went back to a hotel and I went to bed,” she said. “There was a knock on my door later on. I opened it, which was a mistake, I had a nightie on. It was the project manager and he barged in and started trying to kiss me. I ran out of the room and told the hotel staff they needed to move me to a different room straight away.

“I went back a short while later with the hotel staff to get my stuff – and the manager was passed out on my bed. When we were back on site a big bunch of flowers arrived with a card saying ‘sorry’, as if that was supposed to make up for it.

“The company said they wanted to help me but that they couldn’t take him off the job because it was too close to the end. It felt like they just wanted to prioritise profit over staff wellbeing.”

While that incident took place just over a decade ago, the woman says that the sector has not changed much since, and adds she was groped at a construction event organised by a different organisation last year.

Faye Allen, a chartered quantity surveyor and director at consultancy JS Held, is writing a book about women’s experiences in the sector.

“I’ve been in the industry for 30 years. I think there’s still a big problem when there’s work events, even now. The problem is when people have drunk a lot and their inhibitions go down,” she says.

“Companies need to be better and if you report things it needs to be taken seriously. Research I’ve carried out for my book shows that not many companies seem to be taking it seriously enough.”

Allen adds: “I think everyone needs to look after themselves, that may mean don’t drink too much. Equally, we have to educate men to know it’s not okay to grope someone just because you’ve had
a few drinks. But it can also happen on public transport, so it is a wider issue for society too.”

Designing and enforcing a drugs-and-alcohol policy in the workplace can be a more straightforward process than for company social events, where a culture of drinking is often encouraged, says Lauren Booker, alcohol consultant at charity Alcohol Change UK.

“I think quite often there’s a reluctance to do it. Organisations often think that’s a grey area that they don’t want to get involved in, but you need to be unequivocal. It’s a matter of clarity,” she says.

“People sometimes feel like they’re killjoys if they say you can’t drink more than x amount, or we insist you get a taxi home afterwards or whatever rules you put in place, but the point is the rules protect people and without them it’s a legal minefield.”

She encourages employers to “be prescriptive” and consider trying to challenge the culture that “a good night out means that there has to be a certain amount of alcohol involved”.

Employer responsibilities

Lacking such rules at a Christmas party proved a high-profile legal problem for housebuilder Crest Nicholson.

Earlier this year, an employment tribunal judge found the company liable for a rape committed after its Chiltern region’s 2019 Christmas event, despite it not happening in the workplace or during working hours.

“An employer has a responsibility to act proactively, rather than reactively, to identify and safeguard against risks to the health, wellbeing and safety of its staff”

Roger Tynan, employment judge

In the ruling, employment judge Roger Tynan detailed that the company had failed to put safeguards in place to protect staff or delegate responsibility for safety to anyone at the event – which offered unlimited free alcohol to staff from 1pm until
the evening.

At the party, in a central London bar, a man sexually assaulted a female colleague three times in view of several other workers and threatened to assault a man who challenged him.

Senior staff were not alerted to what he was doing and he was not removed from the event. The judge said he should have been suspended from his job immediately, and potentially reported to the police.

Tynan found that the man later raped a different colleague in a hotel room, and the tribunal ruled that Crest Nicholson breached section 26 of the Equality Act 2010 relating to her harassment.

A spokesperson for the housebuilder said in June that the behaviour at the party was unacceptable and had “no place in any personal or work environment” and that the “health and welfare of our colleagues continues to be our number one priority”, but it could not comment further on an ongoing case.

The level of financial award that Crest Nicholson will be required to pay to the woman is due to be announced at a later date.

Meanwhile, as the 2023 Christmas party season approaches, other employers may wish to note comments made by Judge Tynan in his ruling, and carefully consider what policy they have in place: “An employer has a responsibility to act proactively, rather than reactively, to identify and safeguard against risks to the health, wellbeing and safety of its staff.”

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