Canada: What Happens At The Office Holiday Party Doesn't Necessarily Stay At The Party

It's that time of year again when companies across the country celebrate the holiday season, spread good cheer, reflect on the long (and hopefully successful) year past and toast the new year ahead.

However, just because the party has begun, it does not mean that an employer's obligation to its employees (and guests) in attendance ends. More importantly, each co-worker's duty to behave collegially and appropriately does not pause once the music starts. What happens at the office party does not stay at the office party (or on twitter, on Snapchat or on any other social media site).

The office party, whether held on-site, at a restaurant or at a hotel ballroom, effectively becomes an extension of the workplace, and all of the policy protections and obligations (for both employers and employees) follow.

Employers should remind all employees (and any guests) that misbehaviour and misconduct during or related to a company social event is subject to investigation and discipline as may be appropriate in the circumstances, consistent with the company's human resources policies. All in attendance must act accordingly and not engage in any behaviour that is harassing, bullying, discriminating, threatening or violent. Designated company chaperones (including managers and human resources) should monitor conduct at the event and be available to engage with employees (both with those acting inappropriately or those who may be the victim of bad behaviour) if anything improper occurs.

Employers also have a duty as hosts to act in the best interest of their guests. Some simple and practical planning tips can be used to promote a safer event, particularly when alcohol is served:

  • Before, during and upon the conclusion of the event, remind all employees and guests that they are not to drink and drive;
  • Provide for a supervised bar, with staff trained in Smart Serve;
  • Have several staff (managers and/or human resources) monitor the festivities and be available in the event of any rowdy or intoxicating behaviour;
  • Serve food during the event and close the bar at least an hour before the party is scheduled to end, providing additional time and other non-alcoholic beverages for guests;
  • Always have alternate transportation options for attendees, including taxi chits, carpooling and designated drivers (potentially from 3rd party service providers) – and communicate all options to guests throughout the evening;
  • Designate several staff to proactively distribute the taxi chits;
  • Include an option for arranging for hotel rooms for employees who live too far from the event or for whom alternate transportation is not available;
  • Do not communicate, promote or advertise any "after party" event; and
  • If there is any concern that an employee/guest is intoxicated and refuses these options and insists on driving (or continues to engage in harassing, threatening or violent behaviour), do not hesitate to advise them that their actions constitute misconduct (that will be addressed) and call for police assistance.

Finally, the foregoing employer obligation to act in the event the employer is concerned or has a belief that an employee/guest is intoxicated and unable to safely operate a vehicle also applies if there is a suspicion of intoxication due to cannabis use. Although we are only a couple of months into legal cannabis consumption in the country, and the application of social host responsibility in respect of legal marijuana use has not yet been tested by our courts, no employer should want to be the first case. Even if marijuana use is prohibited at the event (and certainly not provided), social host liability may still be extended if the host has reason to believe one of their guests was impaired and is injured after leaving their event. Therefore, companies should follow the steps above if there is a suspicion of intoxication, regardless of the source.

Appropriate preparation, timely reminders and, most importantly, policy enforcement will help everyone focus on the goal of any company party – to celebrate team accomplishments and build better bonds of workplace camaraderie.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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