Planning a Liability-Free Holiday Party, Without Becoming a Grinch

Tis the season for holiday cheer and holiday parties. And while employers can hope that employees and guests will be on their best behaviour at an office party, this is not always the case and employers may be exposed to liability. If you are planning an office holiday party, here are some tips to ensure the celebration remains “merry and bright”.

1.       Managing and Planning for Alcohol Consumption

Part of creating a festive atmosphere for holiday parties may involve the provision of alcoholic beverages —after all, egg nog comes but once a year! However, employers face an increased risk of liability where alcohol is involved, since intoxicated employees may engage in harassing or discriminatory behaviour, and/or drunk driving. In order to reduce their risk, employers should do the following:

  • Provide employees with the company’s “alcohol policy” prior to the holiday party and remind them of the policy in the days leading up to the event;
  • Monitor the consumption of alcohol by engaging venue staff or appointing members of your management team to supervise guests;
  • Limit the number of drinks guests can consume by providing a pre-determined number of drink tickets per person or by only serving alcohol with dinner;
  • Do not serve alcohol to guests who appear to be intoxicated;
  • Do not serve strong drink to guests (avoid doubles and drinking competitions);
  • Ensure food and non-alcoholic beverages are available;
  • Halt the provision of alcohol in the last hour or two of the party;
  • Provide guests with taxi chits to ensure safe transportation and make guests aware of the availability of same; and
  • If an employee or guest is intoxicated and insists on driving themselves home, call the police.

2.       Choosing the Venue

Even if your office is equipped to host a holiday party, you should consider holding the party off-site at a restaurant or banquet hall. These venues deal with the issue of alcohol consumption on a daily basis, and can provide you with professional bartenders who have been trained on the proper service of alcohol and on how to recognize the signs of intoxication.

If alcohol will be available, employers should facilitate safe transportation from the holiday party. This may include providing guests with taxi chits or arranging for designated drivers, and communicating these options to employees and guests in advance. As an added precaution, you might station someone at the door of the venue (a company representative or venue staff) to ensure that employees have arranged for appropriate transportation.

3.       Preventing Discrimination and Harassment

Every employer in Ontario has a duty to maintain a workplace free from harassment and discrimination, and the courts have recently suggested that this duty also extends to holiday parties. Given that there is an increased risk of inappropriate behaviour at parties, employers should take steps to ensure a safe holiday party environment:

  • Ensure your office holiday party is non-denominational and not exclusionary in any way;
  • Ensure employees are aware of the company’s code of conduct, and violence, harassment and discrimination policies;
  • Advise employees that the company’s policies on violence, harassment and discrimination in the workplace also apply to office parties (even those held off-site); and
  • Consider appointing a few members of the management team to supervise the party (and advise guests that these people are available should an issue arise).

How Momentum Can Help

While following the above guidelines will go a long way in ensuring that your holiday party is safe and festive, it is impossible to account for every variable. Should you have a question about something that happened at your holiday party, we are happy to assist in any way we can. We can help you manage the situation and develop internal policies to prevent the same thing from happening next holiday season!