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Holiday parties: a ‘how to’ guide for employers in Canada and beyond

Written by
Mathews Dinsdale, Canada’s only national labour and employment law firm.
As the holidays grow near and the holiday party season begins, this article provides some tips employers in Canada and beyond should keep in mind when hosting these events, which can expose them to serious liabilities if the proper precautions are not taken.

Employers that plan on hosting a holiday celebration where alcohol may be served should be aware of the risks associated with the consumption of alcohol and should take the necessary steps to ensure that their employees and guests enjoy themselves in a safe and responsible manner. The recent legalisation of recreational cannabis serves to heighten concerns about employers’ risks and responsibilities in connection with potential impairment at holiday parties.

In particular, employers should be aware of the risks associated with consumption of alcohol and cannabis, as well as the increased risk for harassment or assault related incidents. Being familiar with the signs of alcohol and cannabis impairment will help employers ensure that their employees are enjoying themselves responsibly. Recognising the early signs of intoxication will allow those responsible for the celebration to address any concerns about an individual’s level of impairment before the situation escalates, allowing employers to take reasonable precautions which can help to shield the organisation from potentially significant liability.

A 2001 case (Hunt (Litigation Guardian of) v Sutton Group Incentive Realty Inc., 2001 CanLII 28027), illustrates the potentially significant liability that can arise as a result of a holiday party hosted by an employer, and the importance of ensuring that adequate measures are taken to ensure the safety of your employees.

In Hunt, an employee attended an office Christmas party with an open bar. She stopped for some additional drinks at a pub and was later seriously injured in a motor vehicle accident on her way home. The employee alleged that she was drunk because of the open bar and that her employer ought to have known she was intoxicated.

The employer responded by saying that it had taken significant steps to ensure that Hunt would be safe, including offering to pay for her taxi home and offering to phone a family member to pick her up, and that they were therefore not liable. However, at the employee’s insistence, the employer did not see any of these measures through and allowed her to leave the Christmas party of her own devices.

The Court ultimately determined the employer did have a duty of care arising from the employment relationship. Once the employer realised that the employee was intoxicated, it should have undertaken concrete steps to protect her by actually taking her keys, calling a cab or a family member, or contacting the police. The employer was held jointly liable for 30% of Hunt’s CAD 1.1 million in damages.

During this holiday season, it is especially important for employers to be aware that they may be held responsible for the actions of their employees who may become impaired at a company-sponsored event. The following are some useful steps that employers should take to ensure that all of their attendees are able to enjoy the celebration in a safe and enjoyable environment.

  • Do not require employees to attend an event where alcohol will be served.
  • If alcohol is to be served, a clear and unequivocal communication should be circulated to the employees about appropriate employee behavior. This includes a warning about overconsumption and a clear condemnation of driving while intoxicated.
  • Plan the event so that entertainment or other activities are the primary focuses, and that the consumption of alcohol is only an incidental activity.
  • Ensure that the distribution of alcohol is done by licensed professionals who are trained to spot the signs of intoxication.
  • Management should lead by example and respond to any concerns about impairment at the event.
  • Consider having the bar close an hour or two before the party ends.
  • Serve non-alcoholic drinks and food if alcohol is to be served at the event.
  • Ensure that there is a procedure in place for transporting impaired employees home. This may include providing taxi chits, reimbursement for transportation, or arranging for designated drivers. If transportation cannot be arranged, employers should arrange for the employee to stay at a local hotel.
  • If an employee does become intoxicated, intervene to ensure that the employee does not jeopardise their safety and the safety of others around them by driving while intoxicated. Whatever is done, you should not allow them to drive while intoxicated. If the employee continues to insist on driving and attempts to do so, you should call the police for assistance.


With these tips in mind, we wish you and your employees a safe and happy holiday season!