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Employment & Labour

Plan ahead to ensure office holiday party is festive — and safe

Office holiday parties are meant to be fun events to foster a collegial environment, but they can turn into disasters for employers who fail to plan adequately, Markham, Ont.-based employment lawyer Laura Williams tells

“These parties can be the highlight of your company’s work year, however, employers can often lose sight of the issues that can arise during these events,” says Williams, founder and principal of Williams HR Law and Williams HR Consulting.  

She says a common issue that will arise during holiday parties is over-intoxication, but there are other potential sources of liability that employers should be mindful of when planning their events.

“There are also the risks of injury to employees and guests, workplace harassment and interpersonal disputes between employees,” Williams says. “While it is not possible to eliminate all risks associated with hosting holiday parties, employers can and should take steps to minimize their exposure and ensure a positive and fun event.”

Most employers are aware that alcohol is often the source of problems that arise at holiday parties, she says. Offering a drink or two can be an effective way for employers to show their appreciation for employees as well as encourage relaxed, social behaviour among guests.

“However, employers who offer an open bar can expose themselves to a variety of problems as over-intoxicated employees are much more likely to engage in offensive, violent and harassing behaviour,” Williams notes. “Intoxicated employees can also be at risk of harm to themselves and others after the event if they choose to drive.”

She suggests employers can reduce the risk of alcohol-related liability by limiting the alcohol served by issuing drink tickets to employees, as one example.

“Rather than providing an open bar and leaving consumption at guests’ discretion, a ticket system allows employers to communicate to employees that they are expected to drink responsibly without appearing strict or authoritarian,” Williams says. “Designate a number of employees, ideally members of management, who are prepared to remain sober and observe guests for problematic behaviours and, if necessary, intervene to prevent an incident.”

It is a good idea to offer employees taxi vouchers or a ride-share service to ensure they arrive home safely. In smaller offices, certain managers may also act as designated drivers who can take employees home if they are too intoxicated to drive, she says.

The legalization of cannabis also creates additional risks for employers, Williams says. Like alcohol, cannabis can impair an individual’s judgment, and when mixed with alcohol, it can exacerbate the intoxicating effects of both substances.

“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 pot entirely,” she says.

If consumption of recreational cannabis is permitted, employers should ensure that guests are only smoking recreational cannabis in designated and clearly indicated areas.

In order to have a successful holiday party, Williams says employers may also want to have a firm end time.

“Parties with a short fixed duration give employees less opportunity to engage in unwelcome behaviours and clearly communicates that the party is not expected to be an all-night affair,” she says.

It’s also important for employees in managerial and supervisory roles to be encouraged to lead by example, consuming alcohol responsibly, behaving respectably and generally keeping the party professional.

“In this regard, it can often be helpful for employers to remind guests that they are at a work function by making announcements related to company or employee accomplishments in the past year and reiterating goals for the coming year,” Williams says.

“Having measures in place to keep employees safe, comfortable and professional at company functions is an essential element of office party planning that cannot be overlooked,” she says.

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