Office parties: do you know your responsibilities?

Whether celebrating the holidays, or celebrating a great achievement, any work-related social event leads to the question: “To serve or not to serve alcohol?”

Although it is great to be able to celebrate and recognize your employees’ hard work, office parties can also be a risky business – especially for you, the employer. In addition to figuring out fun locations and tasty menus, employers must put safeguards in place to protect employees who may be drinking or using cannabis at or prior to these events.

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. (Note that in Quebec, the automobile insurance system prevents civil suits in the case of a car accident)

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.

Courts have clarified that due to the nature of the employer-employee relationship, the standard of care on an employer is higher than that on a bar owner or a social host. 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 workplace function, consider the following:

Before the function:

  • Send an email to all staff to remind them that attendance at the function is voluntary, to act responsibly, and to arrange for a designated driver if they will be drinking and/or using cannabis.
  • 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 employees to review them 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 is 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 employees in a hotel or similar accommodation in case of a severe snowstorm.
  • 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 their spouse or a family member to come pick them up. If the intoxicated employee insists on driving, you must contact the police. 

Employers should be proactive by setting out procedures in a drug and alcohol policy that will be triggered if an employee is impaired, or if impairment is suspected, at a workplace-related event. You will need to define “workplace” in your policy to cover these sorts of events, whether on or off premises. Disciplinary measures must also be specified. 

CFIB members can access our Drug, Alcohol, and Medication Policy template in the Resource Library. This policy template was prepared for CFIB by leading law firm, Fasken. 

Before hosting your next business social event, review these recommendations with your employees to help ensure that everyone has a safe night and to mitigate the risk of a lawsuit.