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Holiday hazards: know your obligations to avoid a lawsuit

Harassment, injuries, drunk driving and more - the risks to an employer could make you cancel your holiday party. How can you ensure the biggest story coming out of the holiday party is Steve from Accounting's terrible taste in ties?

Miller Thomson partner Béatrice Arronis outlines some of the common risks and recent case law to help HR reduce liability and avoid a lawsuit.

Video transcript below:

Caitlin Nobes, HRM Online
Caitlin Nobes:
 Most companies have some kind of event for their staff at this time of the year, but are you aware of the legal minefield?  I’m Caitlin Nobes, you are watching HRM TV.
An employer’s obligation to protect their employee’s health, safety and dignity don’t finish at the end of the work day.  So what are the biggest legal risks of the office holiday party?

Béatrice Arronis, Partner, Miller Thomson LLP
Béatrice Arronis:
 The first one is certainly harassment, it’s the most common one is harassment and when I am talking about harassment I am talking about unfortunately very often sexual harassment.  There is also consumption of alcohol, too much consumption of alcohol and what happens if your employees leave the party and has an accident and injured somebody.  There is also the inappropriate behaviour that sometimes happened during the party, such a fight for example between employees and finally you can have a work accident during the party, at the place where this party is.

Caitlin Nobes:  Canadian court decisions show an employer can be held responsible for an employee who drives drunk after a party.  Other cases show an employer is liable for incidents such as harassments and accidents.

Béatrice Arronis:  In fact we have one quite recently seen in Quebec, in the province of Quebec during a Christmas party, there was an exchange of gifts and it was not a good one, it was a erotic exchange of gifts and at one point this [provisor] of the victim, employee’s female employee put handcuff on her and take the opportunity to touch her in a manner that was absolutely not appropriate.  The employee returned to work after that, she was in shock but she returned to work, but a while after she was not able to bear the situation anymore and she decided to resign, but she sued her employer and the employer was found responsible and he was condemned to pay for the salary lost.  In fact we have a recent case in the province of Quebec, a case where an employee during a Christmas party again and at a restaurant was injured.  She was injured by one of her colleague, one of her colleague insisted to have her dance on the dance floor, so she grabbed her literally and pushed her on the dance floor and the employee hurt and injured herself seriously and she had to stop working.  So she claimed that it was an accident related to work.  It could said that it was, it qualifies as a work accident because the employer has a certain interest in this bonding event between amongst you know the employees and their peers and that’s how it was defined finally and the court concluded that it was a work accident.

Caitlin Nobes:  So what can an employer do to prevent such problems, the steps to be taken before, during and after an event to reduce your risks and liability?

Béatrice Arronis:  Before the event I think that the employer can first of all remind to his employees that you know the employer’s policies, internal policy concerning harassment and eventually reasonable consumption of alcohol do still apply during events such as Christmas party or holiday [at] parties.  During the event I would recommend the employer to ensure at all times that there is a reasonable consumption of alcohol and that he monitors the consumption of alcohol and this can be accomplished by for example closing the bar an hour or two before the end of the event.  Also provide for transportation like chauffeurs or taxis, make sure that there are taxis and chauffeurs at the exit of the event.  After the party if something happens, I think the employer should make clear and he should make a follow up and investigate if there was non-appropriate behaviour, if there is, if there was harassment during the party and eventually the employer must, should discipline the employees that have committed some excess I would say during the party.

Caitlin Nobes:  An employer’s responsibilities don’t end with the work day, but neither do an employee.  Canadian courts have upheld disciplinary decisions based on inappropriate behaviour at work events, such as violence towards bar staff.  Thanks for watching HRM TV, have a safe and happy holiday.