Everything HR

Safety on the Rocks: Alcohol and Holiday Parties

November 30, 2016

Holiday parties are a staple for many, and the workplace is no different. These parties are an occasion for merriment, and a break from the hectic pace of the holiday season. However, they can also be a time for drinking, which represents certain risks to employers. Alcohol-related incidents and fatalities occur every year, with dire consequences that reverberate beyond the accidents themselves. Through countless repetitions, Canadian courts and lawmakers have emphasized the extraordinary duty of care hosts owe to their guests; and while some owe more than others, employers certainly have great responsibility to their employees whenever alcohol and the workplace mix.

Any party requires careful and thorough planning, but when alcohol is involved, the need sharply increases. Guests' safety is paramount, and both the risk and the responsibility continue after the party ends. It is tempting to believe that once someone leaves the party, their fate is in their hands alone, but Canadian courts have demonstrated time and again that hosts bear some responsibility, even long after their guests have left.

In an Ontario case from 2006:

  • A company had an open bar at its holiday party; no one monitored the consumption of alcohol.
  • After leaving the party, an employee consumed two additional drinks at a pub and then drove home in a snowstorm, where she lost control of her vehicle and sustained injuries after a collision with an oncoming vehicle.
  • Initially, a trial judge found the employer to be partially negligent (along with the bar), as they owed the employee a duty to safeguard her from harm beyond the duty while on their premises.
  • The ruling was eventually overturned; however, this decision was based primarily on errors made by the judge, including a decision to discharge the jury.

The holidays should be a time to relax and enjoy the company of friends and family, and office parties are a wonderful opportunity to do so. However, health and safety cannot be ignored. A single devastating incident can mar a company for years to come, not to mention embroil the organization in lengthy and expensive litigation. As always, management must set the example for the company. In some cases, this may mean abstaining entirely from alcohol for the duration of the party. Certainly it means assuming a frontline role to prevent drunk driving specifically, and generally maintaining safety. Responsibility flows from the top down, so stress to your managers the importance of minimizing host liability by doing everything possible to prevent accidents.

Download our Holiday Party Action Plan to review just how far your employer responsibility can extend, and ways you can help ensure everyone has a safe and happy holiday.

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