As the winter season approaches many companies begin to prepare for their annual holiday party. During the planning process, it is important to be mindful of potential exposures an employer may face when employees indulge in a little too much eggnog. Alcohol served at a company holiday party may expose an employer to liability arising from sexual harassment, bullying, aggressive behaviour, physical assault, racial slurs and driving under the influence.
It was not long ago that an Ontario court held that Sutton Group was liable for their secretary/receptionist seriously injuring herself in a car crash, after she drove home intoxicated from the office Christmas party (Hunt v. Sutton Group Incentive Realty Inc., 2001 CanLII 28027). The court made the finding against the company even though Hunt did not drive home directly from the office party. Rather, she stayed and cleaned up after everyone had left the party and went to a pub afterwards. She then drove herself home in a snowstorm. Ultimately, both the pub and Sutton Group were held equally liable at 25% notwithstanding the chain of events.
With that in mind, here are a few helpful suggestions to ensure your holiday celebration goes as smoothly as a winter sleigh ride:
- Monitor your employees: While it is probably unrealistic to ban alcohol entirely from a company holiday party (as the days of Grinch-like Prohibition are long behind us), it is necessary for employers to carefully monitor those employees who refuse to step away from the bar. Do not allow employees who have consumed too much alcohol to continue drinking.
- Provide lots of food: When companies are trying to contain costs associated with the holiday party, they may be better off spending money on food rather than on an open bar. Remember that plentiful food and snacks will balance out the effects of booze so it makes sense to keep the food coming all night long. Frequent appetizers available throughout the night – even after a dinner – is a good idea.
- Arrange for transportation: Prior to arrival at the party, it is best to ensure that all employees know how they will be getting home. Early contemplation of transportation is critical to avoiding falling into the trap of trying to make an assessment at the end of the night as to whether an employee is “okay” to drive. Designated drivers, taxi chits and/or shared cabs are effective ideas.
- Keep the party engaged: Scheduled activities at the party will help entertain employees and ensure that they don’t view alcohol consumption as the only thing to do. Games, prizes, raffles, gift exchanges and even bowling may assist in maintaining holiday cheer without the need for the drinks.
- Liven up the non-alcoholic beverages: Provide fun non-alcoholic selections at the bar. Virgin pina-coladas and shirley temples are more discreet and appealing alternatives than spring water for employees who don’t want to end the night with a nose as red as Rudolph.
Following these helpful suggestions will go a long way toward minimizing some of the liability exposures that can arise when alcohol is served and to ensure that your company party is festive success. From all of us at Williams HR Law, have a safe and cheerful holiday season.
This blog is provided as information and a summary of workplace legal issues.
This information is not intended as legal advice.