My Twitter feed (@raggedgeorge) has, in the last few days, been filled with women’s experiences of feeling unsafe. The murder of Sarah Everard has prompted women to flood social media sharing situations of when they’ve felt at best uncomfortable, but at worst, actively threatened. Most of the posts I’ve seen centre around getting home safely after dark and this got me wondering: whose responsibility is it to make sure female employees get home safely after a work event and, if the employer bears some responsibility, what can – or should – they do to minimise risk?
There’s an argument to say that if a woman’s chosen to go out, she’s a grown-up and so it’s up to her to look after herself. But did she really have a choice in attending this event? Or was it one that she was told to, or felt she had to go to, either because it’s an important business development activity, or she’ll be criticised and/or her job prospects suffer if she doesn’t? So, let’s assume for argument’s sake that she doesn’t really have a choice – she has to attend, so let’s now consider what it involves.
Whilst the world is (slowly) changing, in my experience, most significant client events revolve around evening wining or dining or sport. And, again, in my field of work, the majority of people being hosted are men. More often than not, they feature late nights and alcohol. Lots of alcohol because, after all, these things are free! For the last few years, I haven’t drunk alcohol and so I’ve often had a uniquely sober perspective.
Before I go any further, I need to say that, yes, of course, it’s #notallmen and I’m certainly not saying that any men I’ve hosted are a threat. But, statistically, it is SOME men. And if you happened to be one of those SOME men, a male-dominated environment which encourages free, heavy drinking might possibly trigger that ONE man that one night. So, as a female employee, does her employer have a responsibility for her safety and, in particular, to make sure she gets home okay afterwards?
Over my twenty-plus year career, I’ve often been the only woman at an event and have regularly shared a taxi with one or more of the male guests, some of whom I haven’t known. Should I have done that? Should they have done that? They now know where I live. That probably isn’t too troublesome in a small Island like Jersey (where it’s pretty safe and easy to find out where someone lives if you really want to) but it might be more of an issue if you’re in the UK or further afield. What if my employer had arranged that taxi and/or who was sharing it? Had they given any thought as to whether I was the only woman in it, or were the passengers determined by the fact they lived near each other? Are these things even thought about and, if not, what responsibility does the employer have if the worst were to happen?
As well as taxis, as a non-drinker, you’re regularly asked to give people a lift home – especially on a small island. If your boss asks you to give a client a lift, or the client himself asks, can you really say no? I would (read, have) found it impossible to say no on safety grounds and have found myself driving round the countryside at midnight delivering men back to the safety of their homes – the irony is not lost on me here.
But this isn’t a discussion about whether those actual men posed a threat (they didn’t), it’s a discussion about whether an employer has a duty of care to ensure its staff are safe getting home after a work function and that they aren’t put in a risky position – and where the balance of responsibility lies between the employer and the employee for the latter’s safety.
So, what responsibility do I have for my own safety? I’m programmed from an early age that to stay safe: I shouldn’t drink alcohol, or not to excess, I should plan what time and how I am to get home, I should check who I’m booked in to taxis with, I should not wait at a taxi rank alone, I should cover up when leaving, I should text to say I’m on my way home, I should park my car in a well-lit area, I should not make eye contact with anyone as I walk to my car, I should avoid busy areas where groups of men might be, but then I should also avoid quiet areas where those SOME men might be. It’s a minefield. And there is no obvious right answer.
Or perhaps there is. Perhaps the answer lies in us all sharing responsibility – men, women and employer.
Perhaps rather than women having to take sole responsibility, #allmen should pick up responsibility too by: being mindful of the male to female ratio at a function – especially when it draws to a close, allow a woman to say no to sharing a lift or driving a man or men home without offence being taken (or better still, don’t ask in the first place), take extra care if she is drunk, check she’s got a sensible plan for getting home. The list could go on. Simple, sensible steps.
But whereas these are the individuals’ responsibility, perhaps the employer has a corporate responsibility too. This is hard to determine, particularly when there are blurred lines between when a work event turns in to a personal one. You know the thing: work drinks and a meal and then some of you peel off to a club. Is that still ‘work’? Employees have been sacked for breaching work policies when out at after-work drinks, so on that basis, if the employee has liability to the employer when out of the office, maybe it also works the other way round such that the employer maintains a duty of care to the employee? Tricky, eh?
I’m certainly not an HR expert, nor a litigator, but it strikes me that on both a common sense and corporate social responsibility basis, the solution might lie in an employer – whether it actually has legal liability or not – giving thought to the following:
- having a clear policy setting out that all employees have a right to feel safe when at work or on work business;
- undertaking a risk assessment for events considering: ratio of men to women, time of day it’s being held, location, accessibility, is the venue in public, will alcohol be served etc;
- considering how employees will get home after the event and offering safe transport, if needed;
- if booking transport for them, considering who is in each vehicle, and whether the employee is happy for others to know where she lives;
- establishing clear boundaries on when a work event becomes a personal event; and
- probably most importantly, actually asking the women in your business what issues they’ve had with safety, whether they have any safety concerns about any work event and listening carefully to their replies.
Like I say, I’m no expert on these things, but I do think a discussion should be had and I don’t recall ever having seen or heard this considered before. You may think it’s nanny-state political correctness gone mad. But, are millions of women’s stories all to be dismissed as just ‘one of those things’? And could you – or your business – live with the consequences if the worst did happen?
Rest in peace, Sarah Everard. She was just walking home.
NOTE: this blog is my personal opinion and thoughts only and no reference nor link should be made to any of my present or former employers, colleagues, friends or clients. It is written simply as a discussion piece to prompt debate around this subject as I genuinely don’t know the answer as to whether an employer might have liability in this situation.