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Office parties: should you serve alcohol?

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Whether celebrating the holidays, or any work-related social event, the question remains: “To serve or not to serve alcohol?”
Although it is great to be able to celebrate and recognize your employee’s hard work, office parties can also be a risky business – especially for you, the employer. 

As an employer, you have a legal obligation to ensure the health and safety of your employees, including during and after a business-related social event.

In the case of an accident, you can be held responsible, not only for injuries caused by or to employees who leave work-related social events intoxicated, but also to anyone who might be harmed by one of your employees. 

The safest course of action would be to never allow any drinking at company parties, but that may prove quite unpopular with your staff.

The next best approach to mitigate incidents is to limit employee drinking—and to take immediate action to keep employees safe should they overindulge.

Based on the principles arising from recent jurisprudence, as the employer, you have:

  • a duty of care whether the event is held on or off work premises and even if the alcohol is served by someone else, such as a restaurant or a caterer;
  • a duty to take proactive steps to safeguard an employee from harm;
  • a duty of supervision to ensure employees do not leave the premises impaired. 

If you decide on serving alcohol at your next office function, consider the following.

Before the function:

  • Send an email to all staff to remind them that attendance to the function is voluntary, to act responsibly and to arrange for a designated driver if they will be drinking. 
  • Remind your employees of the company’s harassment policy and the company’s expectations about employees' behaviour. Attach these policies to the email and direct them to review it prior to attending the event.
  • Consider a system where employees would leave their car keys at the beginning of the event to avoid the situation of having to remove keys from an intoxicated guest.
  • Ensure the venue is free of potential hazards and do not serve alcohol with potentially dangerous activities, such as driving, snowmobiling, boating, etc.

At the function:

  • Make sure that no one under the legal age is served alcohol.
  • Provide non-alcoholic beverage options.
  • Serve food at all times when alcohol is available. 
  • Limit the number of drinks the company provides by using drink tickets and consider stamping an employee’s hand in exchange for each drink.
  • Hire trained bartenders and instruct them not to serve anyone who seems intoxicated and to advise management if someone was refused service. 
  • Close the bar an hour before the end of the event to signal it is coming to a close. Do NOT signal last call. 

After the function:

  • Provide taxi vouchers for guests or alternative means of transport. 
  • Be mindful of the weather conditions and be prepared to take proactive steps to accommodate your employee such as hotel accommodation in case of a severe snow storm.
  • Monitor your employees as they are leaving the function. Should an employee be inebriated, you should take their keys and arrange for accommodation or a taxi home. 
  • If an employee refuses to cooperate with you contact the spouse or a family member to come pick them up. If the intoxicated employee insists, you must contact the police. 

Before hosting your next business social event, make sure to review these recommendations, to help ensure that employees will have a safe night and mitigate the risk of a lawsuit.