As an employer, hosting a holiday party is a great way to ring in the festive season and thank your employees for their hard work in the last year.  However, if a holiday party gets out of control, or is not reflective of the diversity of your workforce, it can create unforeseen liabilities – particularly where alcohol or cannabis are involved. 

As our readers are now well aware, Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act holds employers responsible to take measures to prevent workplace harassment.  But did you know that the concept of "workplace" extends to work functions, including your holiday party?  What's more, the 2016 amendments that came into effect under Bill 132 specifically include "workplace sexual harassment" under the Violence and Harassment provisions of the OHSA.  This means that employers are responsible to take reasonable precautions to prevent sexual harassment, and implement proper policies and procedures for reporting and investigating workplace sexual harassment.  In fact, if the Ministry of Labour receives a sexual harassment complaint they can (and will) order the employer to undertake a workplace investigation.  (For more on Bill 132, see our blog here.)

Consider this your annual reminder from CCPartners that employers can be liable where their guests – whether or not they are employees – become unruly and engage in any violent or harassing conduct, including sexual harassment, at a holiday party.

It's important for Employers to recognize their responsibility and control their exposures to risk during the holiday season, so we at CCPartners have compiled a list of suggested "best practices" to assist your organization in planning and hosting a safe and inclusive holiday event:

  1. Hold an alcohol-free and cannabis-free event. This is the lowest-risk option for employers. Event planners should check with the event facility to see what their policies on cannabis use are in advance of the party. But don't forget that cannabis comes in many forms so consideration will need to be given to whether you allow your guests to consume any form of cannabis on site.
  2. If you decide to provide alcohol at the event, have a cash bar, hire licensed bartenders, and speak to employees before the event about the risks of over-drinking.
  3. If you allow cannabis products to be available, make sure you have a means of controlling consumption in the same manner as alcohol and only provide products from a legal dispensary.
  4. Employees should also be reminded that this is a workplace function and they are expected to behave in a way that is not harassing, discriminatory, intimidating or otherwise inappropriate, and that your workplace violence and harassment policies apply to the Holiday Party.
  5. Consider distributing your workplace harassment policy to all guests in advance and have them sign off that they have read and understood same.
  6. Holding a morning (brunch) event rather than an evening event where alcohol is served may reduce the consumption of alcohol.
  7. Provide non-alcoholic drinks as an option.
  8. Avoid serving alcohol and allowing consumption of cannabis if your event includes physical activities.
  9. Have plenty of food available throughout the party, and accommodate diverse palates including for those with food allergies or sensitivities.
  10. Provide alternative transportation for employees (i.e. taxi chits or Uber reimbursement). Encourage employees before the event to leave their vehicles at home and take advantage of the alternative transportation you are providing to get to and from the event.
  11. Arrange for a nearby hotel to have rooms available for employees who are unable to get home.
  12. Stop serving alcohol and making cannabis products available at least an hour before the party is over.
  13. Event organizers should have some training or otherwise inform themselves on detecting intoxication from alcohol and cannabis.
  14. Be respectful of the different cultural and belief systems among your employees when planning your event.Make sure the date of your event, your menu and activities reflect your workforce's religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity.
  15. Where your workforce is culturally diverse, consider creating a holiday planning committee of representative employees to plan your event, and plan your event around the many religious holidays being celebrated around this time.
  16. Consider inviting your employees' family to accommodate those who may be unable to leave young children at home.
  17. Allow employees to opt out of your holiday event without a consequence or negative connotation.
  18. Make sure the venue is accessible to those attending your event.
  19. Consider creating an electronic-free event, where use of cell phones and other mobile/recording devices are limited.This will help to ensure that your event and your employees don't end up on social media.

These tips can help employers reduce the likelihood that the most wonderful time of the year isn't tarnished by human rights complaints, harassment allegations, or even civil claims for "social host negligence" if an unfortunate/intoxicated or high employee ends up being seriously injured after leaving your event.  If you have any questions or doubts about your company's planned holiday events, the team at CCPartners can help make sure you stay on Santa's nice list this year! 

Wishing you and your employees a safe and festive Holiday Season.

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.