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The holiday season is a time of parties, including office parties. While you should always try to enjoy yourself at these functions, there are a few things to remember in order to make Monday morning at the office a little easier!

If you are an employer, whether or not to serve alcohol is a tough line to walk. You want people to relax and have fun, but offering alcohol can be a risky endeavor for employers. Over-consumption of alcohol can lead to sexual harassment of co-workers and making inappropriate comments.

And of course the biggest concern is always that one of your employees will drive after drinking and get into an accident. While the Supreme Court has held that social party hosts were not liable when a guest drove home drunk and got in an accident, it is not clear what the liability would be for employers. Employers do have an obligation to keep employees safe while at work, and have more of a relationship of control than between a social host and a guest.

Earlier this year, a man got drunk at his workplace’s holiday party, fell on the dance floor and fractured his shoulder. Even though attendance at the party was voluntary, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal found that because the employer sponsored and organized the event where alcohol was provided as well as free hotel rooms "on the presumed understanding that workers would be likely to consume alcohol to excess."

If as an employer you are going to offer alcohol, it may be best to consider also providing taxi chits, or a pick-up service to minimize the risk that employees will drink and drive. Employers should also consider holding the party at a licensed establishment. Some, though potentially not all, of the liability for any drinking and driving may be borne by the establishment, which has a responsibility to cut someone off when they have had too much to drink.

If you are an employee and your employer is offering alcohol at a party, remember to be smart about your consumption. Bad behaviour can lead to consequences at work, or worse, a legal mess if your co-workers are not impressed with your advances and/or comments. Remember, you are still bound by workplace policies, even at after-hours parties.

A holiday party is not a free pass for you to do and say anything you want. In fact, the best bet for employees is to conduct yourself as if you were at work. If you wouldn’t say or do it in the workplace, then you shouldn’t say or do it at the holiday party. There have been cases where management observed behaviour at a holiday party that did not comply with workplace policies, and the employee was disciplined for that behaviour.

In 2011, an employee was dismissed after he got drunk at the office party, harassed his supervisors, made inappropriate comments and physically threatened fellow employees and their families. The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario upheld the employee’s dismissal, finding that the employee had not advised management that he was an alcoholic and required accommodation. Nor did he provide sufficient information that management should have reasonably known. As such, the employer could not have been required to consider his alcoholism when it terminated his employment.

In 2009, a senior manager was dismissed as a result of his behaviour at a holiday party. After he had sexually harassed a junior employee, he was dishonest during the investigation of her complaint. The Superior Court of British Columbia upheld the dismissal, finding his behaviour at the party and in the subsequent investigation was "fundamentally inconsistent with the continuation of the employment relationship."

While both employers and employees should relax and have fun at holiday events, both still have to be smart about their actions, and understand that a holiday party is not an alternate universe where the rules do not apply.

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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