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December 13, 2016

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Understanding risk: keeping young workers safe at work social events


With Christmas approaching, work time and socialising can start to have blurred lines. When work events run late into the night, especially where younger workers are concerned, the lines around working hours and areas of responsibility can become blurred too. Barbour EHS explores what employers should be doing to protect younger members of staff outside of work, giving detailed advice on reducing risk at work social events, and how to keep younger workers safe around alcohol.

Key areas for consideration are:

  • The Working Time Regulations as they apply to young people.
  • The distinction between employment and social time.
  • Employer liability and reducing risk at work-related social events.
  • Serving alcohol at work functions, including to young workers.

The Working Time Regulations and young people

Working Time Regulations 1998, prescribes the hours that young people under the age of 18 may be allowed to work. Young workers must not be employed for more than 40 hours a week or for more than eight hours on any day. They also must not work between the hours of midnight and 4am.

In addition, they are usually not allowed to work after 10pm or before 7am unless they work in the following industries: agriculture, retail trading, postal or newspaper delivery, hospitality, or a bakery.

A younger worker under the age of 18 may be occasionally asked to work between 10pm-midnight or 4am-7am to respond a particular requirement by the employer.

It is worth noting that a young worker cannot opt out of the maximum weekly and daily hours limits.

It is also important to understand that The Working Time Regulations draws a precise distinction between those age 18 and above, and those under 18 for whom there are different regulations. For example, even if you have a cohort of apprentices all born in the same academic year, and all of whom began work with you on the same day, the law will apply differently to each young person dependent on the date upon which that person reaches the age of 18.

The distinction between employment and social time

Time spent at evening social functions that fall outside of working hours and are unpaid fall outside the provisions of the working time directive. However employers should consider the following factors when thinking about young people attending events outside of working hours:

  • Do attendees understand that their attendance at the event is optional?
  • Do attendees understand that they will not be paid for events outside of working hours?
  • Is the attendance at the evening event truly optional – ie would there be disadvantage experienced by a person who decided to go home before the social event began?
  • Practically, would a young person be able to transport themselves safely home if they chose to leave early?

You need to be able to answer yes to these questions before you can assume that the evening function is truly optional and therefore could not be construed as employment for the young people involved.

Remember that the legislation and guidance in this area makes it clear that the reason young people are given special consideration is in part because they are inexperienced in the workplace, as a good employer it is your duty to make sure you are clear in your instructions to young people embarking on an employment relationship.

The law expects you to make special provision for young people as necessary, this includes being more explicit in your instructions to the young worker about the optional nature of the social event and the behaviour expected at that event. It would be good practice to make sure that the transport of the young workers to the event has been given particular consideration as they are likely to be less experienced at getting to the venue, and using public transport, they will also have less access to private transport than other staff groups.

Employer liability and reducing risk at the work social event

Employers must be responsible hosts, taking steps to ensure that a work-related social event is well managed, enjoyable and safe for all involved.  Most employees look forward to work-related social events and enjoy them responsibly.  However, experienced line managers and HR departments are aware that work-related social events can be associated with:

  • Sexual harassment
  • Acts of aggression and violence
  • Disciplinary hearings and dismissals
  • Unauthorised absence and lateness on the day after the event.

The root cause of most of these difficulties is the provision of alcohol and its excessive consumption.

By inviting staff to the social event, the employer becomes liable for behaviour which takes place.  For example employers can be held liable for sexual harassment outside normal working hours and away from the usual place of work.

It is therefore obvious that such events must be managed carefully.

It is recommended that the following reasonable steps are taken:

  1. Write, publicise and follow a work-related social events policy
  2. Deliver clear guidelines about expected behaviour
  3. Take steps to ensure good behaviour
  4. Look after young workers
  5. Be prepared to take disciplinary action if necessary

1              Write and publicise a work-related social events policy

Employers who organise work-related social events should have such a policy because they have a duty of care towards staff; it’s a matter of good practice which can ensure that other aspects of managing the event are straightforward.

The Equality Act 2010 makes employers liable for acts of discrimination, harassment and victimisation carried out by their employees in the “course of employment”, unless they can show that they took reasonable steps to prevent such acts.

Legal cases have determined that “course of employment” is established to include work-related social events which take place outside normal working hours.

Aspects of social events which could be included in such a policy include:

  • Clear guidance about acceptable standards of behaviour expected of all attending work-related social events.
  • A statement that the needs of those who are not able to or who choose not to drink alcohol will be catered for and respected.
  • Clarity about the restricted maximum amounts of free alcohol which will be provided at events.
  • A statement that alcohol will be served responsibly and that if staff choose to drink alcohol then they must do so moderately.
  • A statement that there will be provision of a variety of non-alcoholic beverages.
  • A statement that food will be served to ensure that the emphasis of the event is not solely on the consumption of alcohol.
  • Clear confirmation that the excess consumption of alcohol will not be allowed or encouraged.
  • A statement that fighting, physical assault, the use of illegal drugs and inappropriate language are prohibited.
  • A commitment that the safe transport of staff to and from the event will be considered. This could include: laying on transport, providing details of last public transport availability and local taxi contacts, and, giving advance notice of events to help staff plan how they will go home at the end of the event.
  • A statement of policy regarding the consumption of alcohol at work-related events to young workers under the age of 18.
  • A reminder that drinking and driving is an offence and that staff must make sure they comply with the law.
  • A commitment to ensuring that nominated supervisors / managers will remain sober to supervise the event.
  • A statement that the employer will ask individuals whose behaviour is causing concern will be asked to leave the event and may be barred from future events.
  • A reminder to staff that those wishing to take the following day off work should go through the normal procedure for booking leave.
  • A statement that if staff do not follow the correct procedure for agreeing leave or arriving late, then the employer will make deductions from pay and / or disciplinary action taken (if there is provision for this in the employment contract).
  • An assertion that dismissal and other disciplinary measures will be considered where necessary to protect the safety of colleagues and the reputation of the business. 

2              Deliver clear guidelines about expected behaviour

In advance of the event, the employer should remind staff about expected behaviour during and after the work-related social event.  An email in the weeks prior to the event and a verbal reminder delivered by managers within a few days of the event is recommended.

This reminder could remind employees of conduct matters, including the dangers of excess alcohol consumption and behaviours that could be viewed as harassment.

3              Take steps to ensure good behaviour

Such steps will include ensuring that the guidelines set down in the work-related social events policy are followed.  Managers and supervisors should be reminded that it is their duty to set a good example.

It is good practice for employers to be clear in designating responsibility for supervising work-related social events to specific managers / supervisors, who must agree to remain sober during the evening. These members of the supervisory team should be provided with guidelines on dealing with drunk or disorderly employees and reminded of the requirements of the work-related events policy, so that they have the confidence and skills to intervene promptly to prevent and stop misbehaviour.

4              Look after young workers

Young people are inherently new the world of work and may be unsure of how to approach a situation that combines both professional and social aspects.  The young worker should be talked through the event and given guidance about how to behave in this situation, in order to ensure that the event goes well for all concerned.

Remember that young people are statistically more likely to have a hazardous approach to alcohol consumption, and that young workers inherently will have less experience than most other employees in attending work-related social events.

Ensure that clear guidance about acceptable behaviour is delivered to young workers.  Ensure that the policy on alcohol consumption by those under the age of 18 is clear, and is delivered to young workers and their supervisors.

The employer should ensure that young people are supervised at the social event.  Young people should have a nominated, sober, buddy or supervisor who is available to them during the event and who ensures that there is a plan in place for safe transport of the young person to home at the end of the event.

5              Be prepared to take disciplinary action if necessary

The employer should make themselves aware of the liability which ensues from work-related social events, and be ready to take appropriate disciplinary action, including dismissal if necessary.

Serving alcohol at work functions, including to young workers

The general context of alcohol purchase and consumption by young people in law is that a 16 or 17 year old who is accompanied by an adult is allowed to drink (but not buy – unless in Scotland) beer, wine or cider with a meal. However, this is at the discretion of the licensee and in practice many licensees forbid the sale of alcohol to this age group – particularly those operating in large venues.

However, responsible employers will be aware that many members of the general population have a hazardous approach to alcohol (estimated to be 24% of the population), including those whose approach to alcohol can be classified as harmful (3.8%). It is sensible to assume that amongst the work population there will be those who have a hazardous or harmful approach to alcohol.

In particular, younger staff members of both sexes are more likely to have a hazardous or harmful approach to alcohol and therefore deserve special consideration.

It is recommended that your business takes a straight-forward ethical approach to this subject by:

  • prohibiting young workers (under the age of 18) from drinking alcohol at work-related social events;
  • prohibiting colleagues from buying alcohol for young workers at the events;
  • ensuring that the licensee understands and agrees that no-one under the age of 18 should be supplied with alcohol at the event;
  • reminding workers over the age of 18 that proof of age may be necessary if they wish to buy alcohol at the event;
  • ensuring that non- alcoholic beverages are readily available;
  • including the matters above in the work-related events policy; and
  • clearly communicating the policy to young workers, supervisors and colleagues.


If you follow the guidance above you will be able to ensure adherence to the legislation, and by implementing the best practice recommendations given, you will ensure that the young people in your company are able to safely enjoy the social event that you are planning.

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