It’s that time of year, again.  Time to review policies and limit risk involved in seasonal parties.  Why? We all like a fun party, but parties and liability have a developing legal relationship.  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 liabilities 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 should exercise due diligence and take steps to limit liability when considering this year’s holiday party by following the following general guidelines.

Beware the mistletoe: Substance Abuse and Harassment

Employers should 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.

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.

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.

Planning a safe party

There is risk of common law liability if an employee drinks too much at an employer-hosted event.  There is a positive duty to guard against over-consumption of alcohol and steps must be taken to ensure that intoxicated guests do not cause harm to themselves or others.

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.

  • Whenever possible, schedule work-related social events outside regular working hours
  • Attendance should be voluntary
  • Designate employer representatives, who must not drink, to oversee the event
  • Hire a professional bartender, experienced in identifying intoxicated patrons, who knows that employees who are impaired must not be served
  • Instruct the 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 for another form of transportation (e.g., buses) – communicate these options to employees before and during the event 
  • Consider organizing accommodation at a hotel if weather conditions might affect an employee’s ability to drive 
  • Stop serving alcohol at least one hour before the end of the event 
  • Arrange to 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.