Eat, Drink (Responsibly) and Be (Reasonably) Merry — An Employer’s Guide to Holiday Work Parties

December is in full swing, and many employers embrace the spirit of the season by hosting holiday parties for their employees. While holiday parties are an excellent way to make spirits bright and boost workplace morale and cohesion, any event where alcohol is part of the equation comes with certain challenges for employers.

These challenges have been magnified by the legalization of dried cannabis products in October 2018 and the legalization of “edible” cannabis products in October 2019.

As of December 17, 2019 recreational edible cannabis products are widely available across Western and Atlantic Canada, with the exception of Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. Those provinces run their own distribution systems under more stringent regulations, which means that edibles including baked goods, beverages and gummy candies will likely not hit their shelves until early January in the new year.

Accordingly, employers should consider the following tips, principles and best practices to ensure that their holiday parties are safe and enjoyable for all.

Drug and Alcohol Policies

All employers should have a comprehensive drug and alcohol policy that very clearly outlines the rules and expectations regarding the possession or consumption of drugs and/or alcohol in the workplace.

This policy should also contain provisions that deal specifically with work-sponsored social events, including holiday parties. As a result of the legalization of cannabis, some employees may be under the mistaken impression that cannabis products are acceptable for consumption at holiday parties. Accordingly, the obligation to drink responsibly and refrain from using drugs, including cannabis, either immediately before or during the party should be explicitly set out. It also makes sense to include a provision that specifically bans the consumption of “edibles” at work-sponsored social events. “Edibles” can be consumed more surreptitiously than dried cannabis products and may thus be more tempting for employees to consume at a holiday party.

While employers should ensure that their employees are aware of the details of their drug and alcohol policy as soon as the policy is introduced, it is a good idea to remind them by way of a company-wide e-mail in the days leading up to the holiday party of their specific obligations in relation to these types of events. In particular, employees should be reminded that despite the legalization of cannabis products, the consumption of cannabis remains prohibited at work-sponsored social events.

The reminder should also include a warning that any breach of these obligations could lead to discipline up to and including the termination of their employment.

Mitigation of Risk at the Party

There are a number of steps that employers can take at the party itself to ensure that things stay under control:

  • Mitigate the possibility of employees driving under the influence by providing them with taxi chits in advance for to and from the party.
  • Have someone stationed at the entrance of the party. If any employees arrive and are visibly under the influence of cannabis or are excessively inebriated, politely but firmly arrange for that employee to use his or her taxi chit to go home. This will head off any potential problems that those employees could create at the party.
  • Consider providing employees with a limited number of drink tickets for purchasing alcohol as opposed to having an open bar. Leaving aside the potential cost savings, this will drastically reduce the risk of overindulgence among employees.
  • Have someone stationed at the exit of the party to monitor those leaving and ensure that anyone under the influence makes use of their taxi chits as opposed to driving themselves home. If an employee who is under the influence is permitted to drive after the holiday party and injures or kills either themselves or others, the employer may incur liability.

After Parties

Employers should be extremely careful to ensure that clear lines are drawn between the employer-sanctioned party and any festivities involving alcohol or cannabis use that continue among employees after the party. Failure to do so could result in an employer’s liability without the benefit of its insurance. For more information, please see our previous Insight on the subject.

Holiday parties are an excellent way for employers and their employees to celebrate and cap off the work year. Following the tips in this article will go a long way towards ensuring that this year’s party will not be remembered for any of the wrong reasons.

Note: This article is of a general nature only and is not exhaustive of all possible legal rights or remedies. In addition, laws may change over time and should be interpreted only in the context of particular circumstances such that these materials are not intended to be relied upon or taken as legal advice or opinion. Readers should consult a legal professional for specific advice in any particular situation.