Duty of Care at In-Person Events

When it’s all said and done, COVID will have certainly changed the world of live events—at least for some time. Though it’s been a systemic shock to the world and has caused a loss of life and loss of living, it’s not the only threat to live events. Threats can range from large-scale risks like natural disasters and active shooters to smaller, personal risks like allergies, dietary restrictions and cultural misunderstandings. Here’s a closer look at duty of care, in-person events, and what attendees and organizers should know.

Defining duty of care

Medical students are asked to take the Hippocratic Oath, part of which says “first, do no harm.” The idea for event organizers should be similar: they are responsible for the safety and well-being of attendees and staff on-site and should have the knowledge to care for their well-being. Do no harm, indeed.

It should go without saying that events, whether before, during or after the time of COVID, should be made as safe as possible for organizers, staff, attendees, and volunteers. According to the Legal Dictionary, a “duty of care is the legal responsibility of a person or organization to avoid any behaviors or omissions that could reasonably be foreseen to cause harm to others.” For event organizers, it’s really about making events as safe as possible for all people.

As the global events industry contemplates the return to in-person events, duty of care takes on a new significance in a COVID and post-COVID world. This raises questions about what can be seen—in a reasonable way—as putting people in harm’s way.

Some examples are clear-cut. For example, an event professional would not fly 200 attendees to a deserted island with no shelter and running water. This would clearly be putting people in harm’s way. But in a post-COVID world, is shaking hands or planning a buffet with communal serving utensils putting people in harm’s way?

It depends. And it’s complex. For better or worse, event professionals can end up being at the center of decisions with lasting consequences. This is why understanding and adhering to duty of care becomes so important.

Breach of duty of care

Live, in-person events can offer amazing experiences and bring great risks with them at the same time. In a country with an ever-increasing number of personal and class-action lawsuits, breach of duty of care can have serious consequences, from loss of life to lawsuits impacting millions.

What, then, does it mean to breach duty of care? First, causality has to be proven for there to be a proven breach of duty of care. This means it has to be proven an act or negligence contributed to the harm.

Of course, there is a balance to be struck between how many boundaries should be put in place for protection and when this protection changes the experience for attendees.

Emotional safety

Physical safety is certainly paramount to a safe and successful event—and is a bit more clear-cut in duty of care. In a world that continues to confront systemic racism, a #MeToo movement, and cancel culture, emotional safety matters, too. This can come down in an event setting to questions of consent and in considerations of what you say (or don’t say) while on premises.

Other aspects of duty of care

Ultimately, duty of care for in-person events should be considered from the beginning, in all aspects of planning, designing, and executing events. Duty of care extends to the facilities, to transport, to food, entertainment, exhibit halls, and more. It also extends to suppliers, vendors, and partners that are involved. Specific planning and risk-mitigation conversations should be part of all in-person event planning. They should be focused against a specific duty of care document that guides personal and emotional safety for all.

At DallasHR and for The HRSouthwest Conference, we’re always focusing on what’s essential to ensure our events and annual conference are as safe as possible. Given everything we have seen and learned over the last year, we’ve updated much of our general information, including on our duty of care.

DallasHR is the third largest SHRM affiliate chapter in the nation. With more than 2,000 engaged HR professionals, the Chapter has been Advancing the Value of HR since 1939 through cutting-edge education, fun networking events and opportunities to share best practices with others in the field of HR. The Chapter powers The HRSouthwest Conference, one of the largest regional HR events in the U.S. celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. DallasHR events are held in both Dallas and Collin Counties. Visit us at dallashr.org to join or hrsouthwest.com to register and follow us at #DALLASHR, #HRSWC.