By Stuart Rudner
T'is the season, and my partner and I have spent a lot of time recently discussing company holiday parties. While they can be a great way for employers to thank employees for their hard work, and they can be a fun event for employees, they also provide plenty of opportunity for employees to get themselves in trouble, sometimes with the added benefit of liability for the company.
From an organizational perspective, there are a few primary concerns.
The first is liability for harassment, including sexual harassment. There's also potential liability when an employee gets behind the wheel after having too many drinks. As we have said to many employers, if you choose to throw a holiday party, you want it to be one that everyone enjoys — but you don't want it to be one that ends up in the news. We have all heard the stories of managers and their subordinates "hooking up" at or after the holiday party, as well as the stories about people drinking to excess and driving home.
Not surprisingly, the first piece of advice that we offer as employment lawyers is to have effective policies in place. To begin with, employees should be clearly advised that all workplace policies will apply (with reasonable modification) to the workplace holiday party. They should understand the event is not the same as going out for a few drinks with their friends and that, while it is a party, it is also a work event. Policies such as those relating to harassment apply in full force.
In addition to having policies, companies must disseminate them so everyone (management included) is aware of them, and then ensure they are enforced. Supervisors and managers should observe employee behaviour and ensure nothing inappropriate occurs. Many holiday parties involve alcohol, and if that is the case, the flow of liquor should be controlled. This can be done in many ways. While not perfect, the use of drink tickets can help to limit the number of drinks an individual will consume. Even more effective is the use of trained bartenders, who know when to stop serving an individual. There is a reason many employers are inviting the spouses of employees to a party — people tend to be better behaved when their other half is around.
Employers should also arrange safe transportation home, and the easiest way is to provide taxi chits at the end of the event. Managers and supervisors should be particularly mindful of the state of guests as they depart and ensure no one will be driving if they are intoxicated.
From an employee perspective, as I discussed in my interview on Toronto radio station 680 News recently, twerking at the company holiday party is never a good idea. And even though the atmosphere may be more relaxed than the workplace, sexually suggestive comments, comments about your colleagues appearance or bodies (or similar remarks) should be avoided.
From a legal perspective, you do not want to expose yourself or the organization to potential claims. From a more practical perspective, employees should remember that the majority of employment relationships can be terminated at any time, though notice or severance may be required. You do not want to do anything that will cause your employer to think it is better off not having you in the organization. Therefore, it is best to limit your alcohol intake to a minimum and avoid any potentially questionable or inappropriate conduct.
Lastly, we are often asked about inclusiveness and political correctness at this time of year. As I have advised many employers, it is not legally required that every single possible religious or ethnic groups be acknowledged at your holiday party.
If your workforce is uniformly Christian, there is nothing wrong with having a Christmas party. However, if you have a multicultural workforce, it will be better received if you acknowledge the different groups and their particular holidays. Many employers will informally consult with their workers in order to understand what would be appropriate and appreciated, and incorporate those elements into their holiday party so everyone feels as though they have been included.
Many employees have been heard to complain about "holiday parties" that involve a Christmas tree, Christmas music and a visit from Santa Claus. If the primary purpose of the holiday party is to make your workers feel as though they are appreciated, then it would be wise to ensure they do not feel as though they are second class members of the organization.
For both employers and employees, the holiday party can be a time to relax, have some fun and get to know your colleagues in a more informal setting. However, do not forget that it is a work related event, and there can be consequences to your actions.
Stuart Rudner is an HR lawyer and a founding partner of Rudner MacDonald LLP, a Toronto-based firm specializing in Canadian employment law. He provides clients with strategic advice regarding all aspects of the employment relationship, and represents them before courts, mediators and tribunals. He is author of You’re Fired: Just Cause for Dismissal in Canada, published by Carswell. He can be reached at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @CanadianHRLaw and join his Canadian HR Law Group on LinkedIn.