CANADA: How Can Employers Mitigate Liability for Incidents Related to Alcohol or Cannabis Consumption at Holiday Parties?

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In Canada, employers that host holiday parties for their employees could expose themselves to significant common law liability for the actions of an employee or guest who is under the influence of alcohol or cannabis.  In addition, occupational health and safety legislation imposes a general obligation on employers to take every reasonable step to protect employees by ensuring the safety of the workplace, and to provide a harassment-free workplace; “workplace” extends to work functions including holiday parties.  Notably, in 2015, Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act expanded the definition of “workplace harassment” to include “workplace sexual harassment.”  In addition, employers may be liable for harassment under applicable human rights legislation.    

Despite the potential risks, most employers host holiday parties to demonstrate their gratitude to their employees for their hard work throughout the year.  We have listed below the many proactive steps employers in Canada can take to help reduce hazards associated with holiday parties:

  • Make attendance optional.
  • Consider holding the party during the day and refrain from serving alcohol.
  • If alcohol is served, consider forgoing hard liquor and limiting the offerings to beer and wine.
  • Make non-alcoholic beverages and food available. 
  • Although the recreational use of cannabis by adults is now legal in Canada, do not provide it in any form, and forbid its possession and use at the party. 
  • Hire bartenders who have been through a Smart Serve Responsible Alcohol Beverage Sales & Service Training Program as they will be trained to monitor alcohol consumption, identify intoxicated individuals, and handle them appropriately. 
  • Prior to the party, circulate a reminder to employees that they will be expected to comply with all workplace policies at the party, including the employer’s drug, harassment, and social media policies, and to drink responsibly.  Attach all relevant polices to the reminder and reinforce that misconduct will be subject to discipline. 
  • Do not provide an open bar.  Provide a finite number of drink tickets, and ask employees and other guests not to provide their unused tickets to others.
  • Consider inviting the employees’ partners as their inclusion may motivate better behavior.
  • Prohibit drinking games and contests.
  • Consider appointing a member of the establishment’s staff  to monitor alcohol consumption throughout the evening and stand near the exits to identify intoxicated individuals.
  • If an employee or other guest becomes intoxicated, attempt to take reasonable steps to:
    • Prevent them from having continued access to alcohol.
    • Confiscate their car keys if they have any; if they resist relinquishing their keys and attempt to drive home call the police.
    • Give them a taxi voucher and put them in a cab, ask a member of their family to pick them up, arrange for a sober employee to drive them home, or offer them a hotel room for the night.
  • End the party at a designated time and close the bar well in advance.

If handled safely, holiday parties can be a wonderful opportunity to promote team building and demonstrate employer appreciation of employees.  Employers that take reasonable steps to put these suggested protocols in place will be more likely to end 2019 on a high note without having to face the consequences of a holiday party gone wrong.  

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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