Off-site work events can help create a more collaborative workforce, but they also come with a range of liability risks. In Episode 33 of The Workplace podcast, CalChamber Executive Vice President and General Counsel Erika Frank and employment law expert Jennifer Shaw cover the benefits and drawbacks of hosting an off-site work event.
‘It’s Who You Are With’
“Off-sites,” or company retreats, can take place in a wide range of locations—from the fancy, such as Napa, to the practical, such as a regular company board room, Frank says.
Perhaps due to a good economy and in an effort to retain workers, companies are trying to outdo each other in planning work trips, Shaw explains. Whether it’s a weekend in Cabo or renting a chalet in Lake Tahoe, “it all sounds great until something goes wrong,” she says.
The main reason things go wrong? People forget the adage when talking about workplace conduct, Shaw says: “It is not where you are, it is who you are with.”
Simply put, when taken away from the worksite, people forget that work rules still apply. And companies often complicate the matter, Shaw explains, by serving alcoholic beverages and planning late-night activities.
Company retreats can be great for team building. Especially for companies with telecommuting or flexible schedule workers, a company retreat can connect employees face-to-face and build personal connections, Shaw points out.
Moreover, retreat activities, such as having a cake-making competition for example, can help level employee ranks, erasing lines of authority, and thus developing better, stronger, more trusting work relationships, she tells Frank.
“When you are doing little fake cake wars, and it’s you and your boss against somebody else and their boss, all of a sudden you’re just four people having fun,” Shaw says.
The Bad, the Ugly
So, Frank asks, where do retreats go awry?
Usually, Shaw replies, it’s when people “let down their hair a little too much.”
But, “not everybody has this reaction,” she says.
If 30 people are invited to a retreat, not all will misbehave. It’s usually one or two people who overdo it, Shaw says. Other problems may arise depending on whether spouses, children, or guests are permitted to join the retreat, she explains. Issues arose at one retreat, for example, when an employee brought a female guest who was not his wife.
When planning a corporate retreat, employers should think of which employees will be invited, what accommodation will be provided, and whether guests or spouses will be invited, Shaw advises. The retreat can be held off-site, but employers should be smart about what activities are planned, she adds.
Not all problems arise out of bad behavior. Depending on the activity, workers’ compensation claims may arise if employees are hurt during retreat activities. Employers should have employees sign liability waivers, but workers’ compensation risks will remain, Shaw explains.
In fact, Shaw recommends hiring a professional company to run the retreat, so employers don’t have to figure it all out themselves.
“It’s money well-spent,” she says. “If you’re already going to spend the money on the hotel and the food, and the drink and the activities, get the pros in.”
Ultimately, Shaw says, off-sites can enhance work connections, but they shouldn’t be used to get to know your employees.
“The only reason to do [off-sites] is because you care about getting your team working as a team. If that’s not the goal, it’s a waste of money and you’re buying a lot of potential liability,” she tells Frank.
Shaw encourages employers to think carefully about what activities to do, what the best type of retreat is for their group, and about a geographic location that makes sense for everyone.
“The more thought that is put into them, the better the result,” she says.
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