After more than 12 months of Covid related restrictions, workforces across the country have settled into a ‘new normal’ of working from home. For many, this now includes a range of virtual social gatherings and events to keep staff engaged and boost morale.
This is all well and good. However, it is important to highlight that, whilst not all staff may want to attend online work events, employers should make sure they extend invitations not only to those currently working but those away from work on extended leave too.
This was the lesson in the recent case of Howie v Holloways Of Ludlow Design & Build. Mrs Howie was the General Manager of a high-end kitchen design business, Holloways. Whilst she was on maternity leave, Holloways organised informal Christmas drinks at a pub in Wimbledon and put money behind the bar for staff drinks. Most of the London office attended, having been informed of the gathering by word of mouth or text message.
Holloways did not think to invite Mrs Howie because she was not at work. She brought a Tribunal claim for maternity discrimination and the Tribunal agreed. It was decided that she had been treated less favourably by not being invited to the staff drinks because she was away on maternity leave. If she had been at work, she would have been invited.
Interestingly, Holloways argued that the drinks event was not a formal Christmas party, and so there had been less reason to think to invite Mrs Howie. However, whilst the Tribunal felt there had not been a deliberate decision to exclude her, there had still been a gathering, subsidised by Holloways, and it was unlawful to overlook inviting her because she was on maternity leave.
Of course, we are still largely limited to virtual events at present. However, this may make it more likely to overlook colleagues who are on leave, whether maternity, parental or adoption leave.
The lesson from Mrs Howie’s case is that even informal; virtual events should be made available to those away on leave to attend if they wish and that there is a risk of compensation being payable for discrimination if colleagues are excluded inadvertently.