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Legal Eye: holiday party responsibility and liability

The holiday party can be a great tool for team building and recognition, but if you're not staying on top of your legal responsibilities then you could be liable if something goes wrong.

Employment lawyer Kelsey Orth from Crawford Chondon & Partners discusses an employers duty of care to their employees and how it applies to the annual holiday party, or any work event where alcohol is being served, and gives some tips on how to reduce your liability.

Video transcript below:

Caitlin Nobes, HRM TV
Caitlin Nobes:
 It’s an event most staff look forward to all year, but holiday parties can be headaches for HR.  Are you staying on top of your legal responsibilities?  I’m Caitlin Nobes, you are watching HRM TV.

The work holiday party is a strange beast.  It’s somewhere between a social night out with fun within a formal work event.  Canadian courts have found that unlike a social host, employers do have an obligation to protect their employees.

Kelsey Orth, Crawford, Chondon & Partners LLP
Kelsey Orth:
 You owe your employees a certain level of care in terms of protecting them from themselves essentially when we are talking about alcohol.  So the courts will look at whether or not, you as an employer did what you need to do to protect the employees from harm and protecting the employees from harming others.

Caitlin Nobes:  A number of Canadian cases have found that employers can be found liable for employees driving drunk after work events, if it was reasonably foreseeable that they would have to do so. Another area of concern is issues of workplace violence and harassment.  Adding alcohol to a situation makes it more likely that workplace grievances and grudges will be aired, despite the special nature it’s still an employer’s responsibility to provide a safe place to work and that might mean making sure you don’t overindulge.

Kelsey Orth: As much as you as an employer or you as the HR manager want you know kind of kick back, relax and enjoy yourself, you know maintaining some level of control over if not everyone at the party at least yourself so that you can deal with any situation that arises.  

Caitlin Nobes:  If you have had employee conflicts in the past you might be able to predict where those problems will arise or which individuals you need to keep an eye on.  What else should a responsible employer do?

Kelsey Orth:  When you are preparing and planning for your party, you want to think about things like monitoring the intake of alcohol, so either you know using tickets that everybody gets a certain amount or having someone actually serve alcohol as opposed to leaving it open and accessible for everyone.  You know you can also have, make sure that either there are taxi chips available or taxis are on hand and that’s what I think that a lot of employers do around Christmastime.

Caitlin Nobes:  It’s also important to serve sufficient food throughout the event.  By showing that you have stepped to your responsibilities as a host you are reducing your liability in the event that something does go wrong.  I’m Caitlin Nobes, you are watching HRM TV.
 

See also: Party poopers: how to avoid disaster at your work party