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The dark side of holiday fun

Holiday parties need to find the right balance between fun and liability

By Jeffrey R. Smith (

Every year, when the calendar winds down, the thoughts of many turn towards celebration and people’s agendas fill up with holiday parties. This includes workplaces, to a varying extent. Some workplaces have small, low-key departmental lunches while others have large-scale off-site gatherings. If some of these employee celebrations involve alcohol, there are liability risks employers must consider.

While it’s fun for co-workers to loosen up a bit and celebrate, when an employer organizes and pays for the festivities, it assumes responsibility. If alcohol is provided, it’s a good idea for the employer to keep its supply under control and provide options for employees to get home or stay somewhere if they have a few too many. Likewise, if the party is outside of the workplace, the employer usually has the same duty to protect employees’ safety as it would in the normal workplace. So the extent to which an employer celebrates the holiday season may come down to a consideration of the risks versus the benefits.

There was a well-known case in Ontario a few years back where a real estate firm, Sutton Group Incentive Realty, threw a holiday party with an open bar. One employee, Linda Hunt, drank too much at the party then got behind the wheel. After driving to a pub where she had a few more drinks, she got into an accident that seriously injured her and some passengers in her car. Hunt successfully sued Sutton Group, which was found partially responsible for the accident because it supplied unlimited booze at its party and failed to provide a way for her to get home safely. This violated its duty to keep its employee, Hunt, safe. This is an example of circumstances where the employer probably wanted to make sure its employees had a good time at its party and was feeling generous, but didn’t make the proper preparations for it.

Even if measures are taken to ensure employees get safely, when the alcohol flows there are other risks. If employees get a little tipsy, inhibitions drop and the risk for inappropriate conduct increases. Last year, the British Columbia Supreme Court upheld a hotel executive’s firing after a 2006 holiday party where the executive got a little too friendly with a subordinate, who had been plied with booze throughout the evening. Ironically, the executive had been placed in charge of alcohol distribution for the event and was supposed to be ensuring its consumption was limited.

However, it seems too many employers are still not giving much consideration to the risks of allowing employees to let loose. I heard a story about a holiday party put on last year by a Canadian company at a cottage it rented. There was an open bar where employees served themselves. Though the company paid for hotel rooms, the hotel was 15 minutes away and the company didn’t provide for transportation and some employees drove.

When planning a work holiday party, a balance has to be struck. I’m sure many people like a lavish gathering with free food and drink to celebrate, but employers always have to keep safety and liability in mind. Is it a better option to go all out and stoke employee morale as high as possible, or rein in expectations and reduce liability with a low-key affair?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. For more information, visit

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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