‘Tis the season... to play it safe

Holiday parties can bring good cheer and employee engagement, but do risks outweigh benefits?

By Jeffrey R. Smith

The holiday season is upon us and — regardless of one’s religion or creed — it’s a season of celebration and parties. And that includes many workplaces.

I’ve discussed in the past the potential pitfalls for employers that can come with workplace holiday parties, but it’s a good idea to revisit them during a time when many employers are planning such festivities.

A party gets most people in a good mood to celebrate. And, unfortunately, some people can get a little out of control. This can be especially true if alcohol is involved, especially at a party that is put on by the employer but is held outside the workplace at another venue. In circumstances like this, the employer is still responsible for the safety of employees, since the venue is considered an extension of the workplace for the most part. As in the workplace proper, the employer has an obligation to ensure employees are protected from unsafe situations and harassment.

If alcohol is served at a workplace function, placing strict limitations on it and monitoring the situation is advisable. There have been cases where things have gotten out of control and an intoxicated employee harassed another employee, with the employer found responsible for contributing to the circumstances leading to the harassment. Additionally, court decisions have found that employers hosting a party for employers should be considered similar to a commercial host rather than a social host — which puts them on the hook for liability if someone consumes alcohol at the event and then gets behind the wheel.

There’s no doubt if a party is held at the workplace, the regular employer duty of care for the safety of employees should apply. But how much should that duty of care apply when the festivities are at another venue? If the employer makes the arrangements and makes alcohol available, there is some degree of responsibility. But how far should the duty of care go? To what extent should employees be responsible for their own actions if they choose to over-indulge?

And when the liability is taken into account, what’s the best approach for employers when planning a holiday celebration for employees?  While a big party off-site with alcohol being served is something that many employees will enjoy and appreciate, is it worth the risk? Or is it better to have something simpler at the workplace that might be safer, though less popular of an idea with many employees?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. He can be reached at [email protected] or visit www.employmentlawtoday.com for more information.

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