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What Should I Do If I’m Asked to Attend a Work Event on My Own Time?

Has your employer ever asked you to attend a special event or gathering during unscheduled hours? You are not alone. Many people receive invitations to work events that are billed as a reward for hard work or an opportunity to get to know co-workers outside of the office. Though the events are sold as fun-filled and voluntary, we all know not participating can leave us looking like the weak link in our company chain.

Fortunately, except in specific situations, employers cannot require that we attend events that are outside of our normal paid work schedule without compensation (including over time pay if applicable). However, as an employee, you need to understand how your decision to attend or not attend affects your professional opportunities and if necessary, find a way to forego giving up your personal time without sacrificing your reputation as a team player.

Is the Event Voluntary?

First and foremost, you have the right to say “no” to attendance at an uncompensated work event. Your employer is not permitted to force you to do anything, but because you are employed at-will, they can terminate you for any reason not protected under state and federal laws. For instance, you can be terminated for having a bad attitude, but you cannot be terminated for your race or gender. Unfortunately, when it comes to attending events, it can lead to accusations of having a negative attitude, not getting along with co-workers, or not supporting the company.

Before you move ahead with legal action or allow an upcoming event to cause you stress, consider a few things. First, is the event really voluntary? If you are threatened that failing to attend will result in job loss, it is not really voluntary. And if an event is not voluntary, you must be paid for attending. If you feel threatened to attend an event for which you will not be paid (and you are not an exempt employee) you have a reason to seek counsel.

Do You Have a Specific Reason for Not Attending?

There are some instances in which you would be protected from termination based on state or federal laws. For instance, if an event interferes with your religious obligations, you have the right to say no and you cannot be punished for doing so. If you believe your termination is related to a refusal to attend an event based on your religion, you have the right to take legal action.

The same is true if you believe you will be subjected to harassment while attending an event. However, it is important to note that if you are experiencing harassment in the workplace, you should not wait until you are required to attend an event to report it. Of course, if you are able to keep your distance from a harasser during normal work hours and you know you will be vulnerable during an event, it makes sense to draw the line at this point.

Finally, the food or beverages served at an event can be a valid reason for not attending. For instance, if you have diagnosed allergies and you are concerned about your safety based on an event menu, the Americans with Disabilities Act can protect you from having to attend. Expect though, that if you refuse attendance based on exposure to an allergen, your employer will simply change the menu to accommodate your needs. If your religion prohibits you from attending events in which alcohol or certain foods are served, your employer must honor your desire not to attend, but again, changes might be made to accommodate your needs.

Work issues, especially those related to your attitude or role as a team player can be quite dicey. If you are concerned about an issue involving your attendance at a work event, we can answer your questions and help you determine if your legal rights were violated. Contact the New York employment lawyers Borrelli & Associates, P.L.L.C. to discuss your case now.

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