The holiday season is fast approaching and organizations are planning their annual Christmas or holiday parties (however you want to call it). The increased recognition that alcohol consumption at organization-sponsored events creates significant legal liability has had an impact on that traditional institution. And now, with the legalization of cannabis and the #metoo movement, added legal liabilities come into play.
Companies schedule and plan holiday parties with the best of intentions, to reward their employees, boost morale and encourage team spirit. But these gatherings, especially when alcohol is served, can turn into an environment for unwanted sexual advances and potentially illegal employee conduct if the employer is not careful. That is especially the case when the holiday party is held at an offsite location. In a social setting outside of the workplace, an employee whose inhibitions are lowered by alcohol consumption can engage in behaviour that he or she would never consider doing on the job. Also, in today’s real-time social media environment, drunken shenanigans at a holiday party can quickly be posted online for the whole world to see.
Organizations are carefully weighing the pros and cons and trusting employees to act as professionals during the company-sponsored holiday event. That said, many employers have already taken measures to ensure employee professional behaviour and minimize liability at all company sponsored events.
For example, most employers regulate alcohol consumption through methods such as:
- providing drink tickets or a drink maximum,
- serving only certain types of alcohol (for example, making wine and beer but not spirits available at the party),
- having a cash bar, or
- banning alcohol completely.
In addition, if alcohol is to be served and consumed, employees are directed not to drive but to ensure they have a designated driver to drop them off and pick them up after the event is over.
As for recreational cannabis and edibles, most employers have implemented a complete ban.
Moreover, most organizations have either a formal or informal policy that informs employees what type of behaviour is or is not acceptable at work-related events.
The same is said for a complete ban on behaviours that lead to workplace harassment, violence and drugs (illicit and recreational).
Why is it necessary to review and communicate certain policies before company-sponsored holiday parties?
The first two actions an employer needs to take prior to the holiday party include reminding employees that respect and professionalism apply not only on work time but also at company-sponsored events such as the office holiday parties. Send a memo reminding employees to act responsibly at the party, clearly expressing a lack of tolerance for any inappropriate behaviour including impairment.
And secondly, employers need to establish or re-communicate several policies that guide employees on knowing what is or is not acceptable behaviour or actions at a company-sponsored event, including before, during and after the event. Remind employees that the list of policies below will remain in effect before, during and after the holiday party, and employees, as well as supervisors/managers, will be liable for violations.
These policies include:
- Code of conduct: Make sure your employees understand that a holiday party is still a work-related activity and appropriate work behaviour is still required.
- Dress code: Enforce the workplace dress code at the party to avoid any inappropriate or suggestive attire and let employees know your expectations in advance.
- Workplace harassment and violence: Emphasize that the company has a zero tolerance policy for any sort of harassment, including both physical and verbal forms.
- Social media: Prohibit employees from posting photographs or video taken during the event without management permission on social media.
- Drugs and alcohol in the workplace: Ensure that organizers know about the organization’s drug and alcohol policy and how it applies to work-related events and that it is communicated to employees before the event.
- Personal relationship (office romance): Make sure that if an office romance starts at a work-related event, employees know that they should disclose the relationship to management as soon as practicable and especially if it is between a supervisor/manager and one of his or her direct employees.
In addition, make attendance at the party voluntary, and do not suggest that attendance will benefit a person’s standing within the company.
If alcohol is served, set a tone of moderation in advance through interoffice memos, emails, meetings, inserts into paychecks or other communications, and stress that excessive alcohol consumption will not be tolerated.
Limit the number of drinks or the length of time during which alcohol will be served, and provide substantial non-alcoholic alternatives. Serve plenty of food and ensure that alcohol consumption is not the focus of the event.
Simply cancelling the party to avoid liability is not the answer. The goal of a company holiday party is to reinforce the company culture and recognize employees for their hard work. Be mindful to keep the celebrations safe and fun for all employees. Don’t fail to take the proper precautions.
How can PolicyPro help?
Every edition of Human Resources PolicyPro published by First Reference Inc., provides an overview and a sample policy from the list above. Log in to My Account and access any edition of Human Resources PolicyPro to review the commentaries and apply the following sample policies:
- HR 5.03 Workplace Harassment
- HR 5.05 Conduct and Behaviour
- HR 5.10 Dress Code
- HR 5.14 Social Media
- HR 5.16 Personal Relationships
- HR 6.06 Alcohol and Drugs in the Workplace
- HR 6.09 Workplace Violence
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