While the holiday season is a festive time of year, it can also be a source of problems for employers. The relaxed and casual social atmosphere associated with the office holiday party can often lead to a blurring of the lines between professional conduct and inappropriate personal behaviour.

Employers have a duty to protect the health, safety and dignity of their employees during an office holiday party. Employers must remain vigilant and ensure that employees understand that enjoying all that the holiday spirit has to offer does not mean that they can disregard workplace policies.

The following five practical tips can help to ensure that your office party does not set off alarm bells instead of jingle bells.

1. Do Not Make Attendance Mandatory

Some employees may choose not to celebrate. Others may have family obligations outside of regular business hours preventing them from attending the office holiday party. Whatever the case may be, it is always wise to inform employees that attendance at an office holiday party is optional. In many cases, doing so may also shield an employer from legal liability. For example, the mandatory or optional nature of the event is sometimes considered by the courts when determining whether an injury during the event is a work accident.

2. Take Steps to Prevent Alcohol-Related Risks

When offering alcoholic beverages to employees, be mindful that the open bar concept may encourage excessive alcohol consumption. Offering sufficient food and non-alcoholic beverage options throughout the evening or limiting the number of free alcoholic drinks per person (i.e. ticket exchange for alcoholic drinks, cash bar, etc.) are useful strategies to adopt in order to limit an employer’s exposure to incidents and complaints that often arise from excessive alcohol consumption. Where the holiday party is held outside of the employer’s premises, it is a good idea to verify that the venue staff are adequately trained to identify and react to patrons who may have over-consumed. With respect to post-party transportation, it is common for employers to facilitate transportation to and from the event, for example, by reimbursing or providing coupons for taxis. This can help reduce the employer’s potential legal liability associated with impaired driving.

3. Be Mindful of What You Say

Management should avoid making promises and engaging in discussions about sensitive or confidential topics such as work performance, promotions and salaries during the office holiday party. Similarly, “locker-room” talk, controversial political discussion or comments about a colleague’s manner of dress or appearance should be avoided. Management should also lead by example by adopting a responsible and professional attitude during the event.

4. Remind Employees of Workplace Policies

Drunken antics can range from comical to catastrophic when co-workers are involved. In addition, the prevalence of social media makes it easier than ever for employees to broadcast or post embarrassing moments for the whole world to see. While no employer wants to be perceived as a Grinch ruining the holiday fun, steps ranging from a simple email reminder to a full-fledged training seminar on workplace policies relevant to the event are useful ways to remind employees that, despite the relaxed and social atmosphere of the office holiday party, workplace policies must still be heeded. To this end, it is a good idea to remind employees that sexual harassment and social media policies shall be in effect and that common sense must prevail.

5. The Office Secret Santa: Warn Employees Against Inappropriate Gifts

When it comes to gift exchanges between co-workers, employers should inform employees that they must ensure their gifts are appropriate. Lingerie or other gifts of a sexual or offensive nature offered to a colleague during the holiday season could be deemed to constitute sexual harassment. In this context, it is always best to ensure that the office Secret Santa or other gift‑exchange activity remains professional, respectful and compliant with workplace policies.

The above considerations will help ensure that the office holiday party remains memorable long after the music stops…..for the right reasons!