Gallagher McIntyre

Client Resources

Industry News

Tips to Avoid Legal Pitfalls at Office Parties

Posted in Industry News on December 4, 2013.

Publication Date:  12/2/2013
Source:  Waterloo Region Record (Ontario, Canada)

‘Tis the season of the office holiday party, a time when the combination of awkward mingling with co-workers plus alcohol creates a social minefield.

But, experts say, one faux pas can easily turn bad behaviour into a legal mess.

As the Christmas/holiday/end-of-year party season kicks off, employment law experts offer some tips on how both employers and employees can avoid liability while still partaking in some holiday cheer.

Don’t offer alcohol

Having an alcohol-free event is the best way to minimize risk for employers, though it isn’t always a popular solution, says employment lawyer Inna Koldorf.

Court records are filled with examples of people sexually harassing co-workers and making inappropriate or racist comments at parties. Alcohol is often involved.

Then there is perhaps the biggest concern any time alcohol is served, that an employee will drive home drunk after the party and hurt or even kill someone.

A 2006 decision from the Supreme Court found that social party hosts were not liable in that situation, Koldorf says.

But she warns that could be different for hosts who are employers.

“They do have an obligation to keep employees safe while they’re at work and there is more of a relationship of supervision and control than between a host and a guest,” she says.

Hold your party off-site

If a holiday party is held at a licensed restaurant, for example, the restaurant would be considered the provider of alcohol and, therefore, would assume more of the responsibility for cutting someone off when they’ve had too much to drink, says employment lawyer Daniel Iny.

But some liability could still exist for the employer, he says.

“I would think an employer still has some obligation to take steps if an employer knows an employee … is visibly intoxicated, for example, and not in a position to drive home; the employer can’t turn a blind eye,” he says.

Don’t give open access to booze

If the party is in the office, or somewhere outside a licensed establishment, hire someone to serve alcohol, Koldorf says.

“(It) typically causes employees to drink a little less and if those individuals are trained, then they can actually flag individuals who are intoxicated and who have had too much to drink and they can actually stop serving them,” she says.

Hold a lunch or breakfast party

At Iny’s firm, the holiday party every year is a lunch from 12 to 4 p.m. Common sense dictates that daytime parties discourage heavy drinking or pre-drinking.

“Don’t serve any alcohol during the active part of the party,” she says. “It sounds like something that anyone should think about, but some people don’t.”

Have a plan

“Offer either somewhere to stay for the evening or transportation to and from the event so people don’t feel compelled to get back in their car after the event and drive themselves home,” Koldorf says.

She recommends employers offer taxi chits and/or book a few hotel rooms nearby in case people need to spend the night.

Invite spouses or families

Aside from excessive drinking, the most common problem scenario that likely arises from office holiday parties is sexual harassment, says Iny, though he concedes the two are not mutually exclusive.

“I think it’s kind of well settled that the incidents of sexual harassment claims are dramatically diminished at holiday parties and the like when spouses are included,” he says.

Employees are still bound by workplace policies, even at after-hours parties.

“I don’t think a holiday party gives an employee carte blanche to do or say things that would never be tolerated in the workplace, nor does it give an employer the same right,” says Iny.

Koldorf says the best bet is to conduct yourself as if you were at work.

“It’s not like they’re watching their every move, but management is watching their behaviour,” she says. “There have been incidents in the past where employees have done some outrageous things that did not comply with the employers’ policies or the workplace policies and they were disciplined.”

The Canadian Press
(c) 2013 Waterloo Region Record. All rights reserved.

Switch to our mobile site