December 10th, 2018
Most employers realize what may have been the norm at company holiday parties in the past is no longer tolerable. In fact, without proper supervision and monitoring, hosting such an event can be fraught with significant risk.
Alcohol served to employees at such functions opens up the employer to potential liability under the common law and under liquor licensing legislation. In Ontario, the Liquor Licensing Act specifically provides that individuals are not to be over-served such that they become a risk to their own safety or that of others. Should something bad happen and alcohol is blamed as part of the cause, the employer may face liability for civil damages. It is important for employers to carefully monitor consumption and follow good practices such as to have designated monitors on the alert for signs of intoxication amongst employees. The use of a limited number of drink tickets, as well as making various transportation options available as an alternative to driving home should be standard practice. With the legalization of cannabis, the consumption of recreational cannabis which can lead to intoxication may also, depending on whether the facility allows for consumption (such as a smoking area), need to be monitored to ensure no one leaves the party driving high.
It is also well known that alcohol can have the effect on people of lowering inhibitions, which may serve up a risk-laden environment for incidents of sexual harassment. This is especially so in cases of sexual overtures made by a superior to a subordinate. Case law suggests such behaviour is overt harassment due to the obvious imbalance of power between the two individuals. Even for employees in the same relative position in a company hierarchy, any sexualized advance towards any co-worker that one knows or ought to know is unwelcome would amount to sexual harassment. It may assist to reduce liability to remind staff that a company’s harassment policy is in full force and effect for company events, even if off premises, as it should serve as a deterrent and disincentive for such behavior.
No doubt, when it comes to holiday parties, times have changed. Employer practices have had to change and need to continue adapting in order to keep up with society’s expectations of what it takes to responsibly provide both a happy and safe environment for end of the year social gatherings.