A staff holiday party is a great way of celebrating the holiday season. It can also be an effective way of showing appreciation to employees. These events can be lots of fun, but what many employers often forget is that they can attract unwanted liability.
The most common types of legal issues employers face as a result of staff parties are related to harassment and alcohol consumption. The following are brief guidelines that employers should carefully consider in order to create a fun-filled holiday celebration, while avoiding legal liability.
An employer can be held liable for harassment, including sexual harassment, even if it occurs after hours at a staff social event. The following are simple things that employers can do to not only help reduce the risk of harassment, but also the risk of liability if harassment does occur:
- Develop and circulate an anti-harassment policy that clearly states that it applies to all work functions, including all social events;
- Members of management should be reminded that they are expected to set an example for other employees during workplace functions;
- Invitations for a holiday party should include a reminder that the anti-harassment policy extends to the event;
- Consider inviting non-employees to the event. The presence of customers, suppliers, or significant others can help reduce the occurrence of harassment or offensive behaviour;
- Take steps to limit the consumption of alcohol;
- Anti-harassment training should have fact scenarios that include work social events; and
- Have an action plan ready in the event of an incident of harassment, and be prepared to implement it.
Realistically, employers may not be able to fully control how guests behave at social events. However, they can certainly avoid being held responsible for another guest’s conduct if they take proactive steps to help prevent the conduct, and if they take appropriate and swift action in response to inappropriate conduct.
The consumption of alcohol at a work function can lead to undesirable conduct by guests. One of the main concerns employers should have is being held liable for injuries or damages caused by an intoxicated guest.
A social host is not typically liable for injuries/damages resulting from a guest who has consumed alcohol at the host’s residence. However, employers are not ordinary social hosts. The case law in Canada suggests that employers who host staff holiday party owe a duty of care to their employees which is closer to that of a commercial host. Consequently, an employer who hosts a party has a greater duty to protect intoxicated individuals and the public than a social host.
To help reduce the risk of liability arising from an intoxicated guest’s actions, employers should be following these simple tips:
- Only serve a reasonable amount of alcohol to every guest. Effective methods include the issuance of a set amount of drink tickets per guest, and limiting the period during which alcohol is served;
- Do not provide open access to alcohol;
- Hire certified, licensed and insured professionals to look after the distribution of alcohol;
- Serve food at the event;
- Prevent “binge drinking” by discouraging/prohibiting drinking games;
- Offer a selection of non-alcoholic beverages;
- Hold the event off-site at a licensed and insured establishment;
- Appoint members of management to monitor alcohol intake by guests, warn people against driving intoxicated, and to arrange taxis for intoxicated guests;
- Provide paid transportation to and from the event for all guests; Invitations to the event should include a statement discouraging drinking and driving and excessive alcohol consumption. Similar announcements should be made regularly throughout the event;
- Do not conduct any business at the event; and
- Avoid drinking with employees at other sites after the conclusion of the social event.
If an employer wishes to throw a staff party without having to worry about liability, it should refrain from cutting corners at the organizational stage. Careful and thoughtful preparation is the key to a successful and liability-free event.