Everyone likes a fun party, but parties and liability can yield significant legal issues if you are not careful. In Canada, an office holiday party falls somewhere between social host liability and commercial host liability. The Supreme Court of Canada summarized the distinction between these two concepts in Childs v. Desormeaux:

Guests of a social host do not have a reasonable expectation that their alcohol consumption will be monitored by the social host in the same way that it is expected to be monitored by a commercial host – a commercial host has a greater ability to monitor alcohol consumption because it is actually selling the alcohol to the patrons and is, therefore, expected to observe the quantities of alcohol served.

Employers must exercise due diligence when considering this year’s holiday party by following the following general guidelines.

  1. Beware the mistletoe: Substance Abuse and Harassment

Remind employees of workplace policies dealing with substance abuse and harassment. Employees may think an event is after hours or off the clock, but courts in Canada have extended the definition of workplace to include social events hosted by employers.

  1. Don’t let your party go viral: Social Media

This is also an ideal time to review your social media policy to protect employees. Does your social media policy address photographs or videos taken during workplace events? If not, don’t assume that common sense will prevail – address the issue now and remind employees that before they start taking candid shots of people having fun at a work event or the workplace, they should get permission and never post anything on social media without asking everyone in the picture if it is okay – including the guy in the Rudolph costume.

  1. Turn off the telephone and other forms of communication

Your policy should be clear that communication devices and workplace social events are not a good mix. Encourage employees to turn off their communication devices at such events.

  1. Plan a safe party

There is a positive duty to guard against over-consumption of alcohol. Steps must be taken to ensure that intoxicated guests do not cause harm to themselves or others.

  1. Take practical steps

Employers who host social functions where alcohol will be served should consider the following practical steps to further ensure the safety of their employees and avoid liability.

  • Schedule work-related social events outside regular working hours
  • Make attendance voluntary
  • Designate individuals, who must not drink, to oversee the event
  • Hire a professional bartender, experienced in identifying intoxication, who knows that impaired employees must not be served more alcohol and instruct that bartender to report signs of impairment to a designated employer representative
  • Discourage over-consumption by supplying a limited number of drink tickets per person
  • Ensure that food and non-alcoholic beverages are available
  • Distribute taxi vouchers or arrange other forms of transportation (e.g., buses) or even hotel accommodations – communicate options to employees before and during the event
  • Stop serving alcohol at least one hour before the end of the event
  • Have employer representatives or security staff members monitor guests throughout the event and as they leave. Any employee who is visibly impaired must be prevented from driving. The designated employer representative and security staff member should:
  • Insist that an impaired employee turn his or her car keys over; or, call the impaired employee’s spouse or other family member to pick the employee up; or,
  • If necessary, if the impaired employee remains intent on driving home – call the police.