Amanda Nash
Amanda Nash, Lawyer, McInnes Cooper
Lucie LaBoissonnière
Lucie LaBoissonnière, Lawyer, McInnes Cooper

The Holiday season is here – and so are the parties. Employers host a winter storm of events at this time and year-round. They intend these to be enjoyable events, for employees to celebrate the end of a year, thank customers, network, or all – often while enjoying a “cup of cheer”.

Employers know an employee could overindulge and embarrass himself (or the employer) – but that’s the least of the risks: employers face the risk of liability if that employee (or another guest) injures himself or someone else as a result.

Employers have a legal duty to provide a “safe workplace” under several laws and for these purposes, the “workplace” goes beyond both the employer’s premises and “working hours” to any context with a work connection. “Hosts” may owe their guests and others a legal duty to prevent injury or harm to them (and others). An “employer host” may owe its employees an even higher duty than a “commercial host” (for example, bar owners) owes its guests because of the special relationship between employer and employee. Individual employees (including co-workers or supervisors) also have obligations and can be legally responsible if they don’t fulfil them. The individuals directly responsible for organizing the event are at the greatest risk.

Employers don’t have to pull the plug on holiday (or other) events, but they should recognize the risks and manage them. The employer’s degree of responsibility and risk depends on its level of awareness of and/or control over the event. Here are 5 tips to help employers manage the risks:

1. Party Planning 101. Planning is key to any successful event, and to risk management. Before any event:

  • Establish clear policies and procedures around behavior with consequences for breaking them and clearly and directly communicate them to employees
  • Don’t make attendance mandatory
  • Hold events at licensed commercial locations and/or hire trained servers who are better able to monitor alcohol consumption and spot those who have over-indulged

2. Hold the Rum. The employer’s responsibility and the risk rises sharply when alcohol is present, so think about the role it plays in the party:

  • Eliminate or reduce alcohol from the event, don’t allow drinking to be the focus, and nix party games like drinking contests
  • Make alcohol-free alternatives and food available
  • No self-serve or “open” (free) bars; have a cash bar and/or limit drinks with drink tickets
  • Serve only one drink at a time and direct the bartender not to serve “doubles”

3. He Sees You … Promote employee self-responsibility and moderation to employees – but still maintain some oversight and appropriate supervision.

4. The Red-Nosed Employee. If the employer (or someone working at the venue) notices an employee or any guest is intoxicated, ensure that he – and others – stay safe, and deal with any fall-out later. Do the things you would do if this employee were a guest at your house, like:

  • Provide him (and all attendees) with taxi chits or arrange for other transportation – like calling a friend or relative for a ride or a taxi (and actually place him in it)
  • Assign a sober, responsible person to supervise him
  • Take – physically – the car keys from him if he tries to drive
  • If you’re not sure he has a safe way home, give him a place to sleep – a hotel if necessary
  • If he still leaves: call the police

5. Channel Scrooge. If there is employee misconduct, consider disciplinary consequences. No one wants to be a scrooge, but employer liability – and more importantly people’s safety – is a big deal.

McInnes Cooper has prepared this article for information only; it is not intended to be legal advice. You should consult McInnes Cooper about your unique circumstances before acting on this article. McInnes Cooper excludes all liability for anything contained in this article and any use you make of it.

© McInnes Cooper, 2014. All rights reserved. McInnes Cooper owns the copyright in this article. You may only reproduce and distribute it with McInnes Cooper’s consent. Email McInnes Cooper at to request consent.

About the Authors:

Amanda Nash is a lawyer with McInnes Cooper and is a member of its Labour and Employment, Human Rights and Privacy Law Teams. She can be reached at

Lucie LaBoissonnière is a lawyer with McInnes Cooper. Fluently bilingual, Lucie is an experienced litigator and a member of the Labour and Employment, Insurance and Litigation Teams. She can be reached at