As we enter the holiday season, so too do we enter the holiday party season. But as the holiday cheer begins to flow, employers face a number of concerns that can be addressed with some extra planning.

Inclusiveness

When planning holiday events, be inclusive and keep festivities non-denominational.   

Human rights legislation in each province calls for employers to keep their workplaces free from discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of religion.  Employers should therefore ensure that activities do not exclude certain employees based on their religion.  While this does not necessarily require turning a “Christmas” tree into a “holiday” tree, activities and parties, from menu options to decorations, should aim to include everyone. The activities should be directed towards team building and celebration.

Employees should also be allowed to not participate should they so choose. Make it clear that attendance is entirely voluntary and non-participation will not be noted by the company in any way.  Employees should also be reminded to be inclusive when planning their own office events with their co-workers.

Best practices when serving alcohol

When alcohol is served at company functions, employers owe a duty to employees to keep them safe from harm.  Except in Quebec, employers may also be liable for losses suffered by third parties such as passengers and other road users, in the event of a car accident caused by an impaired employee1. The courts have held that where an employer supplies alcohol to its employees, it must take affirmative steps to prevent the foreseeable risk that someone could be injured by impaired driving. The following are some suggestions that an employer can implement to minimize the risks associated with hosting company parties and that address the issue of drinking alcohol at social functions:

  • Host events at a hotel or restaurant where a licensed commercial host will be primarily responsible for providing qualified staff to serve and monitor the consumption of alcohol.  Ensure that the commercial host has its own liability insurance.  Holding a social function at a commercial establishment will not necessarily free an employer from its duty of care, but it will enhance control over the consumption of alcohol and enable it to potentially reduce legal liability;
  • Restrict and monitor the amount of alcohol consumed by each guest.  For example, use a drink voucher system or hire a licensed bartender rather than offering a self-serve bar, close the bar at least one hour before the planned end time of the activity and make non-alcoholic refreshments freely available;
  • Ensure that food is also served with alcohol;
  • Encourage employees to drink responsibly and remind them that drinking and driving is strictly prohibited by the company;
  • Ensure that supervisors and managers are assigned to monitor alcohol consumption during the event;
  • Provide transportation or taxi vouchers to party guests and ensure that they are advised of their transportation arrangements well in advance of the party, to ensure that employees leave their cars at home; and
  • Arrange for host liability insurance coverage.

Employee conduct

Whether it takes place during regular work hours or after, on site or off, the holiday party is a work-related activity.  The events that take place at the party are likely to have the same legal repercussions as would the same conduct arising on company property.  

An employer may face a human rights or health and safety complaint from an employee who was the victim of harassment at a company social event.  The right to have a “work environment” that is free of harassment extends to off-site company-sponsored events and may include events not officially sponsored by the company (for example, a manager taking a group of employees out for drinks). Further, a victim of harassment may claim that he or she has been constructively dismissed because the incident of harassment has made the workplace too intolerable for him or her to remain there.

Employees should also be aware that they may be disciplined for misconduct occurring at a company social event.  Occasionally, office party (mis)conduct may be so egregious that a single incident can result in an employee’s dismissal.  

Tips for employers

Employers can reduce the risk of liability related to employee conduct at social events by treating the holiday party as if it was taking place at the workplace.  To that end, we offer these recommendations:

  • Be aware of the conduct of all employees – intervene if conduct becomes inappropriate and follow up on complaints of harassment that are made after the party;
  • Assign supervisors and managers to monitor the festivities during the event and enable them to “cut off” the service of alcohol or require an employee to take a taxi home;
  • Place controls on alcohol consumption;
  • Send a clear message that the holiday party is a work-related activity and that inappropriate conduct at the party may give rise to discipline or termination;
  • Implement and circulate a policy for social events in advance of the party and ensure that any policies on harassment in the workplace specify their application at social events.