What employers can do to reduce the risk
Staff parties are a great way to celebrate the holiday season and to thank employees for their hard work over the previous year. Amidst all the excitement, employers must take care to protect themselves from potential liabilities. The following is a guide for employers on how to avoid legal liability arising out of sexual harassment complaints and motor vehicle accidents involving intoxicated employees. This guide is not a substitute for specific legal advice. The lawyers at McCarthy Tétrault would be pleased to advise you and answer any specific questions you may have regarding social host liability.
Employer Liability for Harassment
An employer is liable for discrimination contrary to the human rights law that occurs at work, and may also be liable for any harassment (which is a form of discriminatory conduct) that occurs outside of work hours at employer-sponsored social events.
An employer should consider taking the following steps to reduce both the risk of harassment of its employees at social functions and the risk of liability for such harassment:
- Institute and communicate a harassment policy that clearly states the policy extends to employer-hosted social events, such as Christmas parties, client receptions and similar types of social events.
- Ensure the policy sets out an obligation to bring forward knowledge of behavior that is contrary to the policy and clearly sets out the process for bringing a complaint. The policy should set out options for dealing with the complaint.
- Managers, especially, should be reminded of company policy and expectations. Managers need to know that the company expects them to set an example of professionalism at the holiday party. Moreover, as part of their sexual harassment training, managers should be given real-life examples of sexual harassment, including holiday party scenarios.
- Written invitations or notices about social events may include a reminder that the usual guidelines for conduct apply.
- Employers should consider inviting spouses and significant others. This can significantly reduce the incidences of harassment or offensive behavior.
- Take steps to limit the consumption of alcohol (see below).
- If the function is a dinner, consider whether a seating plan should be used, as this permits the employer to place persons who are likely to be "troublemakers" in an appropriate group.
Employer Liability for Injuries Resulting from Alcohol-Related Motor Vehicle Accidents
As a general rule, a social host does not owe a duty of care to a person who is injured in a traffic accident by a guest who has consumed alcohol at the social host’s residence. An employer who hosts a party for its employees is not an ordinary "social host." Canadian courts have suggested the duty of care owed by an employer to its employees at a party is closer to that of a commercial host. A commercial host has a greater duty to protect intoxicated individuals and the public, based on a close proximity or relationship between the host and the customer.
If an employer hosts a party where alcohol is served, it should take the following precautions:
- Limit the amount of alcohol that is available to a reasonable amount per person. Many employers issue drink tickets for a "reasonable" number of drinks (determined by the length of the event and whether food is consumed) and then operate a cash bar, which has the effect of curbing consumption.
- Offer an array of non-alcohol choices.
- Offer food to slow the pace of drinking.
- Consider holding the party at a hotel, where guests may be able to stay the night.
- Have managerial staff watch for any employees who appear to be impaired, and not only caution these employees against driving, but arrange for a taxi for them.
- Stop serving alcohol one hour before the end of the party.
- Provide taxi cabs, at the employer’s expense, to and from the party. Before the party, communicate to all employees that they should use taxis if they will be drinking at the party. Make a similar announcement during the party.
- If an open bar is provided, limit the time the bar is "open." This discourages overindulgence and makes it easier to manage alcohol intake.
- Appoint managers to casually monitor guests’ alcohol intake.
- Do not discuss or conduct business at the party.
- Make sure employees know they are not required to attend the party.
- Use certified or experienced bartenders who are independently insured.
- Hold the party offsite.
- Avoid drinking with employees at other sites once the party has ended.
Most businesses have liability insurance that provides coverage for injuries sustained by employees or guests, however, not all policies include coverage for injuries sustained during activities conducted outside of the workplace or during activities outside the scope of employment. A review of the terms of your company’s insurance policy is advised to ensure adequate coverage in the unfortunate event that a claim is made.
Employers hosting staff parties must take necessary precautions to avoid potential liabilities. By following a few simple steps, employers can feel confident that a safe and enjoyable time will be had by all.