Toronto and Montréal, November 29, 2007 – The holiday season is fast approaching and so are end-of-the-year staff parties. But employers face a number of risks when holding these events. These include serving alcohol to staff, keeping religion out of the workplace and preventing sexual harassment. According to Ogilvy Renault’s Employment and Labour Law team, these challenges can be met with some extra planning.

“The liability risks of holding staff parties are a big concern for employers this time of year. They need to be responsible, inclusive and aware,” says David Bannon, a partner in Ogilvy Renault’s Employment and Labour Law practice. “Companies can be liable if an employee has an accident after drinking at a holiday party. Employers also need to be sensitive to the diverse backgrounds and beliefs in their workplaces. And they should remember that liability for sexual harassment doesn’t stop at the office door.”

Canadian courts have decided on these issues. In one case, a company supervisor supplied his employees with beer at the end of their shift. After work, one of the workers went to two nightclubs where he continued to drink. Driving home, he was involved in a collision and became a quadriplegic. The Court found the employer to be partially liable.

In another case, a worker told his employer he would not participate in Christmas decorating at a retail store. A dispute arose when the employee refused to display poinsettias. The store gave him an ultimatum—put them out or leave. The employee took action and won a human rights complaint. He was awarded compensation for loss of income and additional money for injury to his feelings, dignity and self-respect.

The following steps can help minimize the risks for employers when holding work-sponsored events:

Serving alcohol:

  • Restrict and monitor the amount of alcohol consumed by each guest (e.g. use a drink voucher system or hire a bartender rather than offering a self-serve or open bar).
  • Close the bar one hour before the planned end-time of the activity—and provide non-alcoholic refreshments.
  • Provide transportation or taxi vouchers to party guests for their trip home.
  • Host events at a hotel or a restaurant where a commercial host with qualified staff will serve and monitor the consumption of alcohol. This won’t free employers of liability, but it will provide a safer setting for staff.

Being inclusive:

  • Make your holiday events non-denominational.
  • Plan events outside regular work hours.
  • Make it clear that attendance is entirely voluntary and that non-participation will not be noted by the company in any way.

Preventing sexual harassment:

  • Be aware of employees’ conduct at events and follow up on complaints.
  • Communicate the message that holiday parties are work-related activities.
  • Check that your policy on workplace harassment states that it applies at social events.

“Employers need to plan ahead when hosting holiday parties,” says Bannon. “They can do this by developing and implementing a policy for company social events. This can be used year-round, as well. It may be the holidays, but the responsibility for employee safety is an issue for all seasons.”