The U.K. arm of Big Four audit firm PwC is being sued by one of its employees for more than 200,000 pounds (U.S. $234,000) after he injured himself at a post-work drink event in 2019.
Michael Brockie, 28, has filed a personal injury claim against the auditor after he lost half his skull in a round of “pub golf,” where he and others were encouraged to down a drink at each of the nine bars they visited. Those to drink quickest got the most points, according to multiple reports, including the Financial Times.
The claim says Brockie has no memory of the event past 10 p.m. and was found lying collapsed in the street with a serious brain injury. He was put into an induced coma and claims to still suffer from “persistent cognitive symptoms.”
Brockie and others were put under “heavy pressure” to attend the event, according to the claim. The Guardian reported the alleged invite from one of PwC’s managers:
“I expect absolute attendance from all of those who attended last year’s invitational. Nothing short of a certified and countersigned letter by an accredited medical practitioner will suffice as excuse.”
PwC has since ceased to hold the annual event.
In an emailed statement, PwC said it was unable to speak on the specifics of an ongoing legal case. It added, “As a responsible employer, we are committed to providing a safe, healthy, and inclusive culture for all of our people. We also expect anyone attending social events to be responsible and to ensure their own safety and that of others.”
The audit firm is not the only employer whose “team-bonding” efforts have proven problematic. In 2019, insurance giant Lloyd’s of London had to issue a warning to employees to curb excessive drinking in the run-up to Christmas after Bloomberg revealed a culture of sexism, inappropriate behavior, alcohol abuse, and bullying at the firm.
The potential for drunken, boorish behavior has prompted many employers to tone down after-hours social events or abandon them altogether, especially as teetotalers can feel excluded. Since the revelations at Lloyd’s, some financial services firms and law firms have championed the use of “sober chaperones” who are responsible for dealing with emergencies and ensuring workers get home safely from work-related social gatherings, especially those that happen late at night and involve alcohol.
“The scope for ambiguity and the opportunity for problems to arise remain where employees attend ad-hoc, quasi-work-related events … where something goes wrong usually related to excess alcohol intake,” said Howard Hymanson, partner in the employment team at law firm Harbottle & Lewis.
In the United Kingdom, workers often attended after-hours events for two key reasons. First, managers typically had a “social expenses” budget, so the drinks were free. But second, employees felt they could not refuse due to the fear of being left out, talked about, or discriminated against, with the risk of being passed over for promotion or a pay raise seeming ominously real.
Now, the pandemic, the popularity of flexible/hybrid working, and the current trend of “quiet quitting”—where employees do their hours, meet their job description, and nothing else—have changed the way employees engage with their employers and made some reassess where the boundaries between work and home life should be. Workers no longer feel compelled to spend Fridays after work hanging with their boss or the people they already spend 40 hours or more a week with; they want to go home.
But can they refuse?
The majority view is employees can’t be forced to attend such events if they don’t want to, unless the activities are specifically written into their contracts. As a result, said David Jepps, partner in employment law at Keystone Law, employees who opt out can’t be disciplined or dismissed. Employment law should also prevent them from being harassed, bullied, or discriminated against for choosing not to take part.
Still, companies can have “reasonable” expectations employees will take part in outside work events as part of team building or to promote the business. Justin Murray, employment partner at law firm Spencer West, said employers can even insist on attendance so long as employees are not forced to do anything unlawful and/or the event is not discriminatory (for example, the activity does not go on so late it makes it difficult for workers with children to arrange childcare).
Further, if an employee continually fails to attend work events, so much so his/her absence is having a detrimental effect on his/her ability to perform the role, an employer might instruct that person to attend. If he/she fails to attend when directed to do so, it could become a disciplinary matter.
“An employee’s continued failure could also be considered poor performance, and a capability procedure may be used by an employer to encourage improved attendance at work social events,” said Andrew Czechowski, associate in the employment department at law firm Simkins. This would be “an aggressive step to take,” he added.