Holiday Parties and Company Liability
By: Ron Guest, Senior Partner, TwoGreySuits
Over the years I have personally seen and have dealt with, as an HR professional, the after effects of inappropriate behavior at company Holiday parties. Careers are put in jeopardy, marriages are challenged, law suits often are a result. For some reason, employees are even more comfortable around co-workers when alcohol is involved. Go figure. In my experience people familiarity and alcohol combined can breed contempt and the effects can be hard hitting and long lasting, usually not in a good sense.
It is around this time every year when companies start to think about the annual Holiday party. We offer the following pointers and remind TwoGreySuits’ HR Power Centre members that they can download the Drug and Alcohol Use Policy which will help everyone enjoy a safe and joyous holiday party. This policy also deals with how to properly manage an intoxicated employee who attempts to drive home. Any non-members wanting this policy please send an email to email@example.com and we will respond by sending you the policy.
Employers may be held responsible for other consequences that can arise out of alcohol consumption at work related events. For instance, in a case that has gone before the courts where an employer was liable to pay damages for injuries sustained by an employee who had been the driver in a single car accident that occurred after the employee had been drinking at an office party.
Despite the fact that your office party may take place outside of working hours, employers and employees should be mindful of the fact that an office party is still a work-related activity. For employees, business codes of conduct and appropriate behavior are still applicable, even if your office party is not at your business premises. For employers, you may be liable if you fail to take reasonable steps to protect your employees against sexual harassment or other offensive conduct that may occur during these events. (and they do occur!)
Employee’s negative behavior at off-site meetings, conferences, and weekend retreats can be the subject of scrutiny, even if the conduct took place “off-duty.” Work-related activities are considered part of the “work environment.” For example, sexual harassment complaints can arise from off-site parties and attract liability.
Any breach of company policy during holiday parties may be cause for discipline, depending on the circumstances and seriousness. Employers will want to remind employees of acceptable and appropriate behavior at these social events, and that any complaints regarding inappropriate behavior will be followed up by the employer.
Here are some suggestions to manage your risk this holiday season:
• Send a reminder to employees by e-mail specifying that codes of conduct still apply at holiday parties, that excessive drinking is discouraged, designated drivers encouraged and that under no circumstances should employees drink and drive.
• If possible, hold social events outside of regular working hours, off premises and at a time in which employees will not be paid to attend.
• If alcohol is going to be served, attempt to limit consumption by avoiding “open bars.”
• Provide drink tickets, have a cash bar, or have the bar cease serving at a certain time.
• Ideally, it is best to have a professional bartender serving alcohol who is experienced in identifying intoxicated persons. Make it clear to the bartender, or other server, that he or she should not continue to serve employees who are visibly impaired.
• Offer food and non-alcoholic beverages.
• During the event, have announcements reminding employees not to drink and drive.
• Distribute free taxi passes, and deal with intoxicated employees immediately, not when they are about to leave.
• Designate someone at the party to monitor drinking and assist if someone is impaired.
• Ensure it is clear that attendance at social events is clearly voluntary.
• Reinforce the nature of the celebration by avoiding denominational entertainment, music or announcements during the event that have a religious overtone.
Your friends at TwoGreySuits wish you a safe Holiday party.