With the season of office holiday parties now upon us, employers should not forget that even though the joyful event might not be taking place during office hours, care is still required.

Employers have an obligation towards their employees during office events, but the employees also have certain obligations during these kinds of events.

Here are some concepts to keep in mind while planning and attending your office holiday party!

General obligations of the employer

There are several laws governing an employer-employee relationship, which still apply during social events organized by the employers, including human rights and occupational health and safety legislation.  

What are the main and most frequent issues an employer might encounter during a Christmas party? The most common one, unfortunately, is harassment. One can also think about unacceptable behaviour from an employee, work accidents and alcohol consumption.

Harassment

Harassment can be psychological (including sexual harassment), or physical. Under the law, an employer has the obligation to prevent harassment in the workplace and act accordingly if harassment is committed. This obligation is still in effect during the office’s holiday party.  An employer’s harassment policy still applies in the context of Christmas parties and relations must always remain professional. We would recommend that employers subtly remind their employees of the work harassment policy in force prior any work party.

Normally, harassment requires repeated, vexatious and unwanted behaviour. However, one serious event can also constitute harassment.

In S.H. v. Compagnie A, 2007 QCCRT 348, one of the employees was inappropriately touched by her superior during the Christmas gift exchange. The Labour Board decided that notwithstanding the context and festive atmosphere, the sexual contact was serious enough to constitute harassment, especially considering the relation of authority which exists between the employee and her superior.

Work accidents

Judicial decisions concerning work accidents in the context of holiday parties are mixed. Some have found that an accident which occurs during these types of events is, in fact, a work accident that can be compensated under the provisions of occupational health and safety legislation.  Others, though, did not consider these incidents to be work accidents and consequently, did not compensate the injured employee. A court’s decision as to whether or not an incident constitutes a workplace accident will be based on the criteria established by the case law concerning general workplace injuries and will depend on the specific circumstances surrounding the event.

Unacceptable behaviour from an employee

Alcohol consumption can sometimes lead to unwanted behaviour. It is therefore very important to know that even though a party takes place outside of the office and outside of working hours, the employment status of an individual is maintained during holiday Christmas parties or other office social events. For example, if two employees get into a fight during an office party, they could be subject to discipline from their employer.

Responsibility of an employer in regard to alcohol consumption

Under the law, an employer has a general obligation to protect the health, safety and dignity of its employees. This obligation continues in the context of an office holiday party. The courts have also held that an employer has the obligation to protect and be diligent towards its employees concerning their consumption of alcohol during office parties. As a result, we recommend that for all office parties, you take the following measures:

  • Do not have an open bar, instead give out drink tickets to control the alcohol consumed by your employees;
  •  cut-offemployees who appear inebriated and make arrangements to ensure they get home safely;
  •  Close the bar a couple of hours before the end of the event;
  • Provide taxi coupons or shuttle services.

These measures may prevent many headaches or unfortunate situations. Do not hesitate to be creative and find alternate options!

We wish you a wonderful holiday season and a safe and enjoyable office holiday party!