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Navigating social obligations at work

For some employees, an invitation to a social work event can sometimes feel more like a demand. It can be viewed as a rite of passage or something required of them to become entrenched in the work culture, that might open the door to a promotion somewhere down the line. But what if these social events are not appealing to you? Do you have an obligation to attend them?

This very issue arose in a recent case from France, which has received a significant amount of attention after an employer fired an employee because he refused to participate in social activities.

The Man Who Said No to “Fun”

The employee, Mr. T, decided that he did not want to participate in “fun” social activities with his firm, which led to him getting fired.

The firm had a “Fun & Pro” philosophy, which practically speaking, often translated to:

  • Excessive alcohol consumption;
  • Engaging in humiliating and intrusive practices;
  • Crude nicknames and inappropriate sexual jokes.

Mr. T simply did not want to participate in these activities, and he was fired for it. In response, France’s highest Court ruled that Mr. T was wrongfully dismissed. It was well within Mr. T’s freedom of expression to refuse to participate in social activities. The French Court found that it was a fundamental freedom under labor and human rights law to be able to choose to not be “fun”, to not attend social activities, or participate in the firm’s wine-to-unwind type of culture.

Can You Say No To “Fun” In Canada?

Canada does not have a current case directly addressing this issue. However, there are a few somewhat related cases that touch on social work event that often arise in human rights case law. Below are a few examples.

Khalil v Myplanet Internet Solutions Ltd

The dismissal or mistreatment of an employee because of their refusal to participate in social activities due to their creed can be deemed discriminatory. However, in Myplanet Internet Solutions Ltd., Mr. Khalil did not meet the threshold for establishing that his attendance at the social event was actually required nor did he have the evidence to establish that there was an “adverse impact” suffered due to his refusal.

Thapa v Suisha Gardens Limited Les Jardins Suisha Limitée

In Thapa v Suisha Gardens Limited Les Jardins Suisha Limitée, Mr. Thapa alleged that his employer forced him to eat beef and drink alcohol at a work event, contrary to his religious beliefs.

Mr. Thapa’s claims were dismissed by the HRTO due to questions about his credibility as a witness and because he never informed his employer of his religious needs.

The HRTO acknowledged that although compelling an employee to drink alcohol at a work-related social event can be seen as neutral on its face, it can have an adverse effect on an employee because of their beliefs and practices.

The HRTO held the following:

Employers have a duty to accommodate an employee’s creed related needs up to the point of undue hardship;

Employees have a duty, if they wish for their creed-related needs to be met, to let their employer know if and how to accommodate them.

McConaghie v Systemgroup Consulting

In McConaghie v Systemgroup Consulting, the employer decided to host a “Men’s Day”. The particulars of this case can be found here: Protection from reprisals – Ontario employees can be reinstated when terminated for asserting rights – Nelligan Law. In short, Ms. McConaghie took issue with the event, voiced those concerns, and then lost her job because of it.

The HRTO found that the social event was discriminatory on the basis of gender. The event was a men only event which specifically excluded female employees. The event was advertised as “A day for Men without Women and Children” and included a list of planned activities such as “massage” and “Hooters Girls”.

This case shows that a firm’s “fun” social event must be inclusive. This principle could apply not only to gender but also to other immutable characteristics, such as: age, sexual orientation, race, creed and so forth.

How Do Employers Stay “Fun” Without Crossing a Line?

Below are employers’ main takeaways regarding “fun” work events. Employers should:

  • Respect employees’ decision when they say “no” to participating in social work events. Work social events should be an elective. Those who want to participate can enjoy, while those who choose to abstain should not be punished.
  • Be mindful of employees’ accommodation needs due to human rights grounds, such as creed and in turn, their general practices. This can be done by providing non-alcoholic options and not creating a peer-pressure environment;
  • Diversify the type of social activities the organization provides, thus catering to a variety of individuals.

For more information on how to organize a fun and safe of legal liabilities work social event, check out ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas: The Dos and Don’ts of Your Holiday Work Party – Nelligan Law.

Nelligan Law is grateful for the contribution of Articling Student Alain Azar for writing this blog post.

This content is not intended to provide legal advice or opinion as neither can be given without reference to specific events and situations. © 2021 Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP.

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