As we continue to return to in-person meetings and events, workplaces can once again look forward to hosting and attending in-person holiday parties. While it is exciting to resume "normal" social functions and traditions, we take this time to remind employers about their liability towards their party guests – whether or not they are employees. Employers may be held either fully or partially liable for claims arising from guests who are permitted to excessively drink or indulge in legalized drugs at a work-related function, including social host liability for any accidents that may take place as well as claims of harassment and/or discrimination. Both Human Rights and Occupational Health and Safetylegislation in most jurisdictions in Canadacreate statutory obligations on employers to provide a safe workplace free of harassment. That obligation extends to workplace functions including holiday parties. This means that if a guest drinks too much and makes a poor decision, such as driving under the influence or engaging in inappropriate behavior that amounts to sexual or other harassment, the employer could be responsible for any damages or injury done to the employees or other innocent third parties.
With the pandemic still lingering, it may be best for employers to continue to host their holiday events virtually. A virtual event is the lowest-risk option for employers and attendees. Virtual events eliminate the risk of any guest contracting COVID-19 or other viruses that continue to create a strain on our health care system. As well, employer liability is greatly reduced since employees will not need to travel home from the party and will be physically barred from engaging with one another. For a virtual party, employers can plan out virtual activities for attendees such as trivia, recorded messages by senior management or virtually engaging in an activity together such as a cooking class.
Some employers may still choose to host an in-person holiday event. In doing so, it's important for employers to recognize their responsibility and control their exposures to risk during the holiday season. CCPartners has compiled a list of suggested "best practices" to assist your organization in planning and hosting a safe and inclusive holiday event:
- Hold an alcohol-free and cannabis-free event. This is a low-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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Consider distributing your workplace harassment policy to all guests in advance and have them sign off that they have read and understood same.
- Do not have any games or decoration that could lead to inappropriate behaviors (ex. hanging mistletoe).
- Holding a morning (brunch) event rather than an evening event where alcohol is served may reduce the consumption of alcohol.
- Provide non-alcoholic drinks as an option.
- Avoid serving alcohol and allowing consumption of cannabis if your event includes physical activities.
- Have plenty of food available throughout the party, and accommodate diverse palates including for those with food allergies or sensitivities.
- 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.
- Arrange for a nearby hotel to have rooms available for employees who are unable to get home.
- Stop serving alcohol and making cannabis products available at least an hour before the party is over.
- Event organizers should have some training or otherwise inform themselves on detecting intoxication from alcohol and cannabis.
- 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.
- 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.
- Consider inviting your employees' family to accommodate those who may be unable to leave young children at home.
- Allow employees to opt out of your holiday event without a consequence or negative connotation.
- Make sure the venue is accessible to those attending your event.
- 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.
Wishing you and your employees a safe and festive Holiday Season.
For even more Holiday Party tips and information, listen to Episode 3 of the Lawyers for Employers podcast on SoundCloud or iTunes.
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.