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Adding fun to work can pay off, but be alert to snags

Who doesn’t like a little fun at work? Breaking the monotony with some offsite activities, an office game day, or just a special lunch can provide a restorative break to help hard-working employees get ready to tackle the hard work that’s always waiting. 

Fun-at-work proponents tout the benefits of giving employees the chance to get to know each other better by engaging in an array of activities that can enhance teamwork, spark creativity, and make workers generally happier. Someone has even designated a national Fun at Work Day, but if you missed the big day on January 28, now may be the time to catch up on some fun—but not without giving thought to glitches that can dampen the mood by throwing legal hot water on the day.

Fun shouldn’t be mandatory

Kassie McKie Shiffermiller, an attorney with Lynn, Jackson, Shultz & Lebrun, P.C. in Rapid City, South Dakota, says employers can ward off many problems by making their fun-at-work activities voluntary. For example, if workers are on deadline they should feel free to pass on the fun so they can get their work done. “Respect an employee’s decision not to participate and don’t give them the guilt trip,” she says.

Employers also have to keep workers’ compensation issues in mind, particularly when planning physical activities. For workers’ compensation to apply, generally an injury must happen within the course of employment, so an injury resulting from an event on company premises during normal working hours may fall under that “within the course of employment” requirement, Shiffermiller says. Requiring participation also may trigger workers’ compensation coverage.

If an employer is hosting a social event and provides an employee with the options of either attending the event, losing pay for the day, or using personal/vacation days, it may appear that the employee’s assignment for the day was to attend the event. Hosting the event offsite and outside work hours and making it clear that attendance is voluntary lessens the risk of workers’ compensation issues, Shiffermiller says.

Sometimes employers shy away from physical activities such as softball games and three-on-three basketball since they may be likely to result in injuries, but Shiffermiller doesn’t necessarily advise shunning such activities. “Hosting a social event that requires some physical exertion not only promotes bonding and fun, it also encourages physical fitness and exercise, which means that you, as the employer, care about your employees’ health and wellness,” she says. But, with physical activities, it is even more important to stress that the activity is voluntary, and it’s best to hold the activity off company premises outside working hours.

Keeping the fun legal

Employers also need to keep the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in mind when planning fun at work. Shiffermiller says the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has defined the benefits and privileges of employment for the purposes of ADA compliance to include parties and social events. (See the EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation an Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act.)

“If an employee with a disability needs a reasonable accommodation in order to gain access to, and have an equal opportunity to participate in the benefits and privileges of employment, then the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless it can show an undue hardship,” Shiffermiller says. “For example, if an employer is planning a company-sponsored pancake feed for its employees at the local park, make sure that there is adequate access for your employee who needs a wheelchair to get around.”

Sometimes employers planning company get togethers need to consider the pros and cons of serving alcohol, so employers deciding to serve alcohol need to be careful to control consumption, “as it may lead to bigger problems such as employees driving under the influence or harassment,” Shiffermiller says.

She suggests controlling alcohol intake by giving out drink tickets or having a cash bar. Also, she says to provide plenty of nonalcoholic beverage options and food rich in starch and protein, “as these types of foods slow the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream.”

Before an event, Shiffermiller says the employer should review and update the company’s substance abuse and harassment policies as well as distribute copies to employees, since “it’s never a bad idea to send out an email or post a memo reminding employees about company policies and emphasize that while they are encouraged to have fun, they should take care to act responsibly.”

Fun success stories

In preparation for national Fun at Work Day back in January, RiseSmart, a Randstad company providing career transition and outplacement services, made some suggestions for fun activities:

  • Game day: Activities ranging from trivia competitions to Wii bowling can “rejuvenate the office mood,” RiseSmart says. Unique awards also can add to the fun that can be “essential for strengthening alignment across departments, building a greater impression of camaraderie and increasing overall happiness among the workforce.”
  • Offsite activities: RiseSmart suggests scheduling a half or full day at “a fun venue such as an amusement park or piano bar.” Other suggestions include renting out a movie theater or taking a trip to a sporting event.
  • Food fun: RiseSmart suggests having a catered lunch or bringing a food truck to the workplace. Workers can eat and socialize “allowing them to recharge and take on the rest of the day full steam ahead.”

Shiffermiller also has a couple of ideas for fun at work:

  • Artsy fun: She says her law firm plans activities to mark Administrative Professionals Day and last year treated the staff to a pottery-painting activity at a local business “to exercise their creative muscles.”
  • Golf and go-carts: She also relates that her father’s business used to rent out a local go-cart track with a mini-golf course to treat employees to an annual company barbecue. “It was a great place for employees to meet each other’s spouses and kids and it was always fun to watch employees win bragging rights for being the best mini-golfer.”