Holiday Party Survival Guide for Employees and Employers

T’is the season of office holiday parties! Office parties can be a great opportunity for employees to get to know one another socially and for employers to thank their employees for their contribution to the business. Or… they can be disastrous.

A review of some recent court decisions highlights that holiday party festivities can sometimes lead to unintended consequences.. Here are a few tips and key cases that can help employers limit their legal liability surrounding holiday party problems, and how employees can keep behavior in check:

TIPS FOR OFFICE HOLIDAY PARTY SURVIVAL

Employers

  • Try to avoid offering an open bar to your employees; they generally result in excessive drinking.
  • Ensure that there is plenty of food and water being served throughout the night.
  • Provide your employees with alternative transportation home from the office party, such as taxi chits.
  • Try to host your event off-site, such as a restaurant or conference space. The staff at the venue will be trained on how to handle drunken patrons and can manage water and food distribution adequately.
  • If possible, also try to provide employees with alternative accommodations if they have to travel far. Hotels typically offer blocks of rooms at discounted prices for events taking place in their facilities.
  • Make sure that whoever is serving alcohol at the party is licensed to serve.

Employees

  • Don’t drink so much that you lose your ability to make smart decisions while in the company of colleagues and employers.
  • Know that you are still expected to adhere to office policies, even at after-hours functions.
  • Try to keep your stories and jokes office-appropriate; avoid using foul language and making dirty or off-colour jokes.
  • Make sure that what you wear is still moderately office-appropriate.
  • Try not to gossip or speak negatively about your job or your colleagues.

RECENT CASE LAW EXAMPLES

Unwanted Closeness on the Dance Floor

In 2013, a complainant in British Columbia alleged that during two consecutive staff Christmas parties, she was assaulted on the dance floor by work colleagues who sought to include her in some rather up-close and personal dancing. This incident was among a few that she raised in support of her claim for harassment in the work place. [Kaferv. Sleep Country (BCHRT 137)]

Physically Threatening and Making Sexually Inappropriate Comments to Colleagues

In 2011, an employee (the plaintiff) got intoxicated at his office holiday party and proceeded to physically threaten his colleagues. The following Monday, he was fired due to his behavior at the party. He claimed that he was wrongfully dismissed from his employment following that fateful holiday party because the employer knew he was an alcoholic, which is a disability recognized under the Human Rights Code.  The Human Rights Tribunal decided that there was insufficient evidence that the employer did know that he was an alcoholic and so denied the claim.

The judgment suggested, however, that if an employee is a known alcoholic and acts inappropriately at an office party, an employer may find themselves being sued for discrimination if they fire the employee over their drunken conduct at the party.  [Huffman v. Mitchell Plastics (a division of Ultra Manufacturing Ltd.), 2011 HRTO 1745]

Drinking and Driving

The risk to employers who have employees drive home after drinking at the holiday party can be significant.  A court in BC ruled that the employer (Nike) was liable for the injuries suffered by their employee after he drove his car into a ditch and suffered significant injuries.  The plaintiff argued that Nike was responsible because they had served the plaintiff and his colleagues alcohol, did not monitor his consumption and then allowed the employee to drive home when he was impaired.  Jacobsen v. Nike Canada Ltd., 1996 CanLII 3429 (BC SC)

Loss of Benefits

In another unusual case, one woman’s dance moves at the staff holiday party led her employer (who was obviously unmoved by the holiday spirit) to claim that she should have her Wage Loss Benefits discontinued after she was seen on the dance floor bending her knees. It was therefore claimed she was able to return to work.  [WCAT-2008-01181 (Re), 2008 25463 (BC WCAT)]

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