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Festivus for the Rest of Us

By Leanne E. Standryk

With the holiday season around the corner we look forward to festivities of good cheer, warm spirits and celebrating another year of hard work and dedication with the time honoured tradition of the company office party.  I, like many others, enjoy this time honoured tradition and by no means am I a scrooge but amid all the excitement, employers must take care to avoid legal liability and what would make us happier as employers but to ensure a safe lawsuit free festivus. 


By now you all understand that an employer is generally liable for harassment, including sexual harassment that occurs within the workplace and at workplace events even if it is off-site.  To minimize the risk of liability arising, consider the following:

  • Maintain a code of conduct and appropriate harassment policies that clearly indicate that the policy extends to workplace social events.
  • Ensure that employees have received training on the policies and understand their reporting obligations.
  • Ensure that everyone understands their respective role under the policy to lead by example and that management should take the lead.
  • Consider means to ensure that everyone drinks responsibly.


Holiday parties tend to focus on a particular religious celebrations.  Religion is one of the protected grounds found in the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Federal Human Rights Act.  Favouring one type of celebration over another could result in liability for your Company.

  • Be mindful of how you name your holiday event.
  • Ensure that employees understand that participation in your workplace traditions (tree trimming celebrations, etc.) is strictly voluntary.
  • If workstation and office holiday decorating is one of your traditions ensure employees understand that it is important to be open to all seasonal celebrations and that they may tastefully voluntarily decorate their personal work stations.
  • Holiday Gift giving.  If holiday gift giving offends a particular co-worker on the basis of his or her religious beliefs, as an employer you may forbid an employee from giving holiday gifts to co-workers.  Ask for employee feedback and take it from there.  Adopt a policy that ensures that participation is strictly voluntary.
  • Non-participation in an event, decorating and/or gift giving should not be viewed or treated negatively.

Limit the Libations

As an employer you owe a duty of care to protect intoxicated employees and the public.  If you host a holiday party where alcohol is served plan ahead to minimize exposure to liability.

  • Review your policy regarding use of alcohol in the workplace.  Every workplace should have a policy regarding use of alcohol at company events.
  • Do not provide an open or unsupervised bar.
  • Consider issuing drink tickets for a “reasonable” number of drinks.
  • Hire a professional bartender who is Smart Serve certified and instruct them not to serve employees who appear intoxicated.
  • Offer food to slow the pace of drinking.
  • Ensure that there are non-alcoholic beverage options for all employees.
  • Provide employees with transportation including a designated driver program or taxi cabs (taxi chits) at the employer’s expense.  Encourage and announce that employees who have been drinking should use the alternative transportation offered.
  • Stop serving alcohol one hour before the end of the party.
  • Insist intoxicated employees turn over their car keys.
  • Senior management must lead by example
  • Ensure that you have appropriate liability insurance in place.

The sentiment, the shift in energy and the opportunity for celebration, gathering and thanksgiving are the wondrous gifts that this time of year bestows. We encourage you to plan ahead to avoid holiday party problems and complaints so that you may enjoy the gifts of this holiday season. While the foregoing may be helpful as a guide to a Company hassle free holiday, it is not a substitute for legal advice.  We at Lancaster Brooks & Welch wish you a safe, wondrous and spirited holiday season.

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