December 1, 2017

How to avoid HR mishaps at the company holiday party

One of the many joyful aspects of the holiday season is spending time with co-workers at the holiday office party. As with any party, the employer, as the host, should be mindful of the many issues that may arise, especially since failing to take proper precautions may result in significant liability. There have been cases in which an employer was sued after an employee was severely injured in a car accident after drinking at an office party.

What can be done to ensure a safe and successful party?

The first consideration is to remind employees that while the intention is to create a festive atmosphere, the party is ultimately a business event, and that all company policies regarding employee behavior, including the employer code of conduct, will continue to apply. The emphasis should be on encouraging employees to exercise good judgment and common sense. The most proactive means of getting this message across is to issue a clear and concise communication to all employees well in advance of the office party.

Although most office parties serve alcohol, it is well recognized that the consumption of alcohol is a major contributor to employee misconduct. Accordingly, employers may wish to consider hosting an alcohol-free event. However, if alcohol is part of the plans, an employer would be wise to consider the following proactive measures:

Send a message

Prior, during and at the end of the party, remind employees and guests to not drink and drive. This is fundamental.

Plan for transportation and accommodation

Prior to the party, set up alternative travel and accommodation arrangements. Some options may include providing taxi vouchers or ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft, carpooling, or booking a block of hotel rooms for employees who may be required to travel long distances after the party.

Track alcohol consumption

Set up a ticket-based system as a means of tracking the consumption of an employee and/or their guest. If a ticket system is not practical, consider limiting the time period during which alcohol is available, or limit the types of alcohol available (i.e. beer and wine only).

Highlight harassment and violence policies

The increase in alcohol consumption can lead to an increased risk of harassment and violence in the workplace. Special attention should be paid to this and employers may wish to remind their employees of their policies.

From a human rights perspective, also be mindful that the party is non-denominational and inclusive, given the wide variety of faiths and beliefs of your employees. Your workforce is multi-cultural, therefore your holiday party should be too!

It is also important to note that your holiday party should not be mandatory. If your holiday party is mandatory, you expose the company to possible claims for wages regarding working hours. Don’t force employees to do something they don’t want to do, especially when the goal is fun and enjoyment.

Ultimately, the message is simple: An employer can pay dearly for failing to take adequate steps when acting as a host. Be proactive and prepared (and have fun!).

Stuart Ducoffe

Stuart Ducoffe (B.C.L., LL.B.,CHRL) is a seasoned employment and labour lawyer as well as the co-founder of e2r®, which powers Ceridian HR Advisory Services. He is also a partner and co-founder of Woolgar VanWiechen Cosgriffe Ducoffe LLP and leads the firm's employment and labour law practice. Follow @e2rSolutions on Twitter to stay up to date on Stuart and his team!

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