drunk employee

Organizations across Canada are busy making final preparations for their Christmas/holiday parties, many of which will include alcohol and a few Facebook-worthy photos of the boss cutting loose to an inevitably poor choice of yuletide tunes. It's a fun time and a great way to bond after 365 days of hard work.

But holiday parties—like any company event— can also leave employers exposed to a stocking-full of risk in the form of social-host liability. In recent years, courts have been deciding against employers in cases in which workers have become intoxicated at a staff party and got into an accident driving home, or even simply incurred an injury related to their night of partying. Of course, social-host liability doesn't end at ensuring employers take the keys from a tipsy employee who's about to get behind the wheel. Management can be exposed to liability arising from aggressive behaviour, bullying, sexual harassment, racial slurs and even physical assault. How? Courts are ruling that party-throwing employers have a duty to not only provide a safe workplace, but also to foresee and prevent reasonable risk of injury or harassment to their staffers, guests or even third parties (e.g., the general public).

This is a cross-Canada challenge for business owners and managers.  Take the British Columbia case Jacobsen vs. Nike Canada Ltd. (1996) or the more recent Ontario case Hunt vs. Sutton Group Incentive Realty Inc. (2001). Courts ruled that by providing alcohol during a workplace party in the former case, or failing to take reasonable steps to ensure an employee who'd been drinking at an off-site event didn't drive home in the latter, the employers in question were liable for damages resulting from massive auto-related injuries suffered by their employees—penalties which in these cases amounted to more than $1 million.

At this point you may be shaking your head and dreading the thought of playing prohibitionist Scrooge to your poor, Bob Cratchit-like employee as he reaches for a second beer at your upcoming Christmas party. Not to worry. Use these tactics to turn your festive function into the fun-filled and liability-limited event it should be:

Choose your venue wisely: This is where proactive party planning helps mitigate risk. Holding your party at a venue close to where the majority of your employees live will help discourage them from using their car for transportation, while hosting at a venue outside of your city's bar or club district will likely curb bar-hopping when your do winds down. The goal: minimize their chance of injury by stopping them from drinking to the point of intoxication.

Let loose, but with one eye open: No employer wants to play buzz-kill at her end-of-year party. In fact, she may want to lead by example and show her staffers how to really let their hair down. Here's the problem with that approach: not only is it destined to result in unprofessional behaviour on your part—and it's never a good idea for the boss to look like a buffoon in a social setting—but it makes it difficult to keep tabs on excessive employee alcohol consumption, which is a must. Consider appointing senior staff to monitor the situation and be prepared to cut off employees who overindulge.

Provide plenty of food, as well as alcohol alternatives: Food helps slow consumption and minimize the effects of alcohol, so keep it coming. And be sure to have your venue serve up a few virgin beverages. Interesting non-alcoholic punches or cocktails—for which there are numerous online recipes—are more appealing alternatives to water or pop for employees who either don't want to drink or prefer to pace their consumption.

Scheduling activities is another great way to help temper alcohol consumption at a party and ensure an event isn't viewed as a great opportunity to binge-drink on the boss' dime. Booking time for management speeches—kept mercifully short, of course—games, prizes, raffles and even gift exchanges help keep spirits high and over-drinking low.

OK, maybe now consider playing Scrooge: Nothing screams 'cheap' like a boss who insists on a cash bar at his holiday party. But the reality is employees who pay for their own drinks tend to imbibe more responsibly than those with an open bar at their disposal. Can't bear the thought? Try this compromise: provide drink tickets for alcoholic beverages on an on-demand basis—and make sure they're distributed by a sober senior staffer.

Supply transportation: This is a critical concept many employers have embraced in recent years. Supplying taxi chits to employees so they can safely arrive and return home from your holiday party is a smart, proactive way to minimize liability and reduce the risk of injury—or worse. It also eliminates the awkward and highly unreliable end-of-night assessments of who may or may not be sober enough to drive. Designate drivers, book a mini-bus or another car, such as a limousine, or call your local taxi company to arrange pre-payment for individual transportation. However you choose to plan transportation—which can be costly—remember the expense and assurance of safety for your employees is well worth the money.

Laura Williams is an employment lawyer and founder of Williams HR Law in Markham, Ont. She has more than 15 years experience providing proactive solutions to employers aimed at reducing workplace exposures to liability and costs that result from ineffective and non-compliant workplace practices.

More columns by Laura Williams

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