Safe and inclusive celebrations

A reminder of the risks and liabilities as holiday parties return to some workplaces

Safe and inclusive celebrations

It’s been a long slog through the pandemic as lockdowns have shuttered many offices and business, and people have gotten used to the vast majority of both their work and leisure life taking place within the confines of their own home. But over the past few months, employers have started opening their doors to employees returning, at least on a part-time basis. And for a few, that is leading to the return of a classic event — the office holiday party.

The pandemic isn’t quite over yet, but with vaccination numbers increasing and restrictions gradually lessening, some people are getting more comfortable with in-person gatherings. After a 2020 holiday season featuring mostly virtual event, some employees and employers may be itching for the chance to celebrate the season and the year’s accomplishments together.

In a recent U.S. study, more than one in four employers are planning to hold in-person holiday celebrations, up from just five per cent last year. The same study found that about one-third of companies aren’t planning on holding any event at all, down from more than half in 2020.

Of course, the return of in-person office holiday parties brings some of the risks and cautions that have always come with such events, and the anticipation of having them after skipping last year may cause some to forget.

Diversity and inclusion are high on the priority list for many employers, so it’s important to keep those strategies in mind when planning holiday celebrations. The holiday season encompasses holidays and beliefs of many different religions and creeds, so it can be a delicate balance. For many, it’s not a problem as long as everyone is respected — it is a season dedicated to good will and generosity, after all. But it’s a good idea to be aware of the diversity of the workforce in communications and activity planning, as well as accommodating any differences, if necessary.

Holiday parties can be a place where people let loose a little, but they should remember that it’s a work event. Employers would be wise to emphasize anti-harassment policies and the importance of good behaviour. Nothing can ruin a celebratory atmosphere than someone crossing a line into harassing behaviour — and it could lead to legal liability on the part of the employer.

Serving alcohol has been a common feature of office holiday parties for a long time, but employers need to be aware of the risks and liability. If someone has a little too much to drink, there could be a risk of harassment or further liability if the employee gets into trouble after they leave – there have been cases where an employer has been liable for an employee driving while intoxicated after a party after consuming alcohol at the party. If alcohol is being served, it would be good policy to either set a limit on the number of drinks — perhaps by providing drink tickets — or to provide taxi chits so they can get home safely.

Office holiday parties have another potential risk this year that employers didn’t have to consider in past years. We’re just starting to hold in-person gatherings, but new cases of COVID-19 are still out there, including in vaccinated individuals. Workplaces are welcoming employees back, but they must still follow protocols like distancing and wearing PPE, keeping the safety of employees a priority. How will this be managed at holiday parties? If an outbreak develops from an office holiday party, will the employer be liable?

It’s been a long pandemic and many people are looking forward to having some sort of in-person celebrations this holiday season, including some employers. But employers must be prepared to deal with the risks of office holiday parties, both old and new.

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