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The Holiday Office Party Dilemma for Employers
17 Dec 2018
By Jennifer Zeilikman
The Holiday Office Party Dilemma for Employers

The holidays are around the corner and employers are understandably becoming more concerned about potential liability that could result from a holiday office party.  On one hand, employers would like to show their appreciation to their employees and an office party is a nice gesture to show that appreciation.  On the other hand, employers are wary of certain legal implications that may result from a holiday office party.  For instance, there may be issues related to harassment and / or damages or injury from alcohol consumption.  

However, an employer need not simply forget about hosting a holiday party.  There are number of simple things that an employer could do to make a holiday office party a fun occasion while limiting the employer’s potential legal liability.

So what about harassment?

Employers are obligated to ensure that their workplace is free from harassment and, obviously, this would include holiday office parties.  Therefore, an employer’s workplace harassment policy would be still in effect during the course of any holiday office party that the employer hosts.  As such, the first step an employer could do before any holiday office party is to take place would be to remind all employees that the employer’s policies about harassment remain in place and apply to all work-related social events including holiday office parties. 

The second step would be for an employer to monitor and limit the consumption of alcohol at the holiday party. As we all know, alcohol consumptions is correlated with bad behaviour. 

Finally, the third step would be to take active steps once there is an incident of ostensible harassment.  This may mean that the employer needs to respond to the incident and to report any occurrence of inappropriate behaviour by an employee during the course of the holiday party.

Should the employer serve alcohol?

Employers are obligated to ensure that their workplace is safe for its employees and, obviously, this would include holiday office parties.  Therefore, an employer must also take steps to protect employees towards an employee’s consumption of alcohol during the course of a holiday office party.  For instance, employers could be held liable for damage or injuries caused by an inebriated employee who became that way because of the consumption of alcohol at a holiday office party.

Therefore, an employer is never to provide an “open bar” to employees.  Perhaps the employer should consider not serving alcohol at all at any of their social functions involving employees or others (like suppliers or business partners).  However, if the employer still chooses to serve alcohol they must ensure that they are licensed to serve alcohol and try to limit alcohol consumption.  For instance, it is common for employers to provide a limited set of “drink tickets” to employees, hire professional servers who are in charge of serving alcohol, or host the holiday office party at another location such as restaurant in order to limit their liability for serving alcohol.  

Another idea is for employers to monitor their employees during the course of the holiday office party so that any employees who appear to be inebriated are “cut off” from further alcohol consumption.  For instance, the employer may select a few trusted employees who could be designated to watch out for inebriated employees and to ensure that those employees are not driving home.

Finally, employers should be strongly encouraged to offer paid transportation home from the event or office holiday party for all employees.

Office holiday parties can still be a fun-filled and festive event for both employers and employees.  Employers simply need to take several precautionary steps to ensure that the office holiday party is safe for all as well.

Happy Holidays from Zeilikman Law!

The above article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. If you have concerns with regard to the foregoing issues, please make an appointment with one of our lawyers or a qualified legal practitioner elsewhere.