Williams HR Law LLP

Holiday Parties and Reducing Employers’ Exposure to Liability

December 19, 2022

Holiday Parties and Reducing Employers’ Exposure to Liability

For many organizations, this year’s holiday party may be their first opportunity for everyone to meet or reunite in person. Holiday parties can be a great way for employers and employees to celebrate the end of the year together, but these parties can also increase liability if employers do not plan to prevent and manage potential issues.

Employers should take steps to prevent and manage incidents of employee intoxication, injury to employees and guests, workplace harassment, and interpersonal disputes between employees, to help ensure their holiday parties are the fun, positive events they are intended to be.

Increased Access to Alcohol May Lead to Increased Exposure to Liability

Where alcohol is an option at a holiday party, employers should take additional steps to protect employees and guests against problems that can stem from, or be exacerbated by, employee intoxication. Where employees have had too much to drink, their levels of inhibition and sound judgment may fall, while incidents of interpersonal conflicts, harassment, sexual harassment, and violence may rise.

Employers who offer “open bars”, where employees have unlimited access to alcohol, may find themselves at a higher risk of liability for harassment and violence, and even accidental injuries. Intoxicated persons can also be a danger after the event if they choose to drive under the influence. These issues may result in liability for employers even if the party is conducted off company premises during non-working hours.

To reduce the risks associated with intoxication, employers can limit the alcohol served by issuing drink tickets. Rather than providing an open bar and leaving alcohol consumption to employees’ and guests’ discretion, a drink-ticket system limits access to alcohol, prevents overconsumption, and provides an opportunity for employers to communicate their expectation that people drink responsibly. Employers may also want to confirm which managers will not be drinking, so that they can keep a sober eye out for problematic behaviours and intervene where needed.

Another way to prevent intoxication is to serve only wine and beer and to avoid providing employees with hard liquor, as serving wine and beer tends to slow the pace at which guests consume alcohol and reduces the risk that they will become intoxicated.

As holiday parties are still a workplace event, employers should also remind employees that workplace policies still apply. Common workplace policies related to employee conduct, including harassment, discrimination, and alcohol consumption should be brought to employees’ attention, as well as the consequences for violating these policies.

Ensuring employees do not overindulge is only the first step in avoiding alcohol-related incidents. Employers must also be aware that if they are serving alcohol, they may be liable for employees or other guests who leave the party while intoxicated and then cause a car accident. For this reason, it is a good idea to offer employees taxi vouchers or a rideshare service like Uber or Lyft to ensure they arrive home safely if they have been drinking. If employees are carpooling, the designated driver must be sober.

What about Cannabis?

The legalization of cannabis also creates additional risks for employers. Cannabis impairs an individual’s judgement and when mixed with alcohol it can exacerbate the intoxicating effects of both substances. As cannabis can be consumed in a variety of manners discreetly, including being consumed outside if smoked, or through edible food items, monitoring and controlling employee cannabis use can be difficult for employers. For this reason, it may be wise for employers to caution against the mixing of alcohol and cannabis at the holiday event or simply to ask employees to refrain from using recreational cannabis at the event entirely.

If employers do choose to permit the consumption of recreational cannabis during a working event, they should ensure that its usage is controlled and limited. Employers should ensure that guests are only smoking recreational cannabis in designated smoking areas and clearly indicate where these smoking areas are located. Employers should also consider informing employees about the delayed onset of the effects of cannabis, particularly with edible cannabis, and caution against overconsumption during the delayed onset period. Employers should also communicate that those under the influence of cannabis must not drive and reiterate the services available for those who cannot drive.

Other Tips

To have a successful holiday party, employers may also wish to include a fixed time when the party will end. A fixed end time will clearly communicate that the party is not expected to be an all-night affair and can reduce the risk of unwelcomed behaviours.

Employees in managerial and supervisory roles should also be encouraged to consume alcohol responsibly, behave professionally and respectably, and lead by example generally.

It can also often be helpful for employers to remind employees that they are at a work function by making announcements related to accomplishments within the past year and reiterating goals for the coming year.

Holiday parties are meant to be fun events to reward employees for their service and to foster a collegial, team-centric environment, but these events should not be planned haphazardly. Ensuring that measures are in place to keep employees and guests safe is just as crucial as ensuring employees and guests are comfortable and having fun. Holiday parties should be a time for merriment, and careful planning can help everyone celebrate safely together.