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Office parties make a comeback after the pandemic: Three issues employers should keep in mind

07 December 2023 - Canada 5 min read

This year, many employees will be delighted to find that office parties in their pre-pandemic form are set to be the norm again. Employers must nevertheless make sure that these events run smoothly and safely. Here’s a reminder of three areas of concern for employers when organizing and running these parties: harassment and inappropriate behaviour, alcohol and cannabis consumption, and workplace accidents.

1. Harassment and inappropriate behaviour

The festive atmosphere of office parties, with music, alcohol and games, can sometimes lead to inappropriate behaviour. Even if most of these celebrations take place in a social context outside the usual workplace and hours, it’s well established that employers have an obligation to maintain a working climate free from psychological and sexual harassment. In May 2022, an arbitrator found that the employer was justified in conducting a sexual harassment investigation into events of a private nature that occurred in a hotel after the employer’s end-of-year party. This justification was based on the fact that the incident and company life were connected, impacting the subsequent work climate considerably.

Therefore, employers must take preventive measures to avoid any incidents of inappropriate behaviour or harassment at these parties. To this end, we strongly recommend raising awareness among employees of the required internal policies on harassment and professional conduct. Practically speaking, this can be done by sending a written reminder to all employees, a few days before the party. This e-mail could emphasize the importance of safety, recall expected standards of behaviour, and make explicit reference to internal policy on these issues. In other words, employees need to understand that the party is just an extension of work, and that the same behaviour requirements apply.

2. Alcohol and cannabis consumption

While providing employees with alcoholic beverages at the office holiday party isn’t forbidden, the consumption of alcohol and/or cannabis is undoubtedly a catalyst for misconduct, especially during a party.

Employers should take steps to limit the consumption of alcohol during the evening to reduce the risk of incidents, given their general obligation towards their employees’ health and safety during organized events. Practically speaking, employers could stop serving alcohol after a certain hour (without making a “last call” announcement before the bar closes), serve food and water during alcohol service hours, limit the number of drinks allowed per person through a coupon system and/or provide employees with a ride home (cab vouchers, Uber coupons, company-paid bus, etc.). It’s also good practice to designate employer representatives who will stay sober and keep the event running smoothly.

As for cannabis, the Cannabis Regulation Act is particularly restrictive when it comes to workplace consumption. It prohibits anyone from smoking cannabis in the workplace, with the exception of those in a private residence. The same Act also provides that, under their managerial prerogative, employers may regulate, including prohibit, any form of cannabis use by members of their personnel. In addition, under the Tobacco Control Act, smoking is prohibited within a nine-meter radius of any door, air vent or openable window communicating with the workplace. So, if the party is happening in the workplace, smoking cannabis will be forbidden. However, if the party takes place outside the usual work premises, in addition to legal restrictions covering specific locations, employers could define the term “workplace” in their own drug and alcohol policy to cover work-related social activities held outside its premises.

In any case, employers will need to communicate their expectations to employees ahead of the party and have measures in place in the event of a breach of its guidelines and policies.

3. Workplace accidents

Depending on the circumstances, an accident that occurs at the end-of-year party could qualify as a work-related accident within the meaning of the Act respecting industrial accidents and occupational diseases. Section 2 of the Act defines an industrial accident as “a sudden and unforeseen event, attributable to any cause, which happens to a person, arising out of or in the course of his work and resulting in an employment injury.” The legislator does not define the expression “in the course of his work,” so the courts must refer to the interpretation of case law. To decide whether an accident qualifies as a work-related accident within the meaning of the Act, the courts weigh several criteria, including:

  • the time and place of the event,
  • the remuneration for the activity performed by the employee at the time of the accident,
  • the existence and degree of authority or subordination of the employer when the accident occurs neither at the workplace nor during working hours,
  • the purpose of the activity carried out at the time of the accident, and
  • the relationship of the activity carried out by the employee to the performance of their work.

None of these criteria is decisive in itself and they don’t all have to be present. They serve only to guide the courts, and the particular circumstances of each case must be taken into account. If an employee is injured at an office party, it’s good practice to document the situation as well as possible, as in the case of a workplace accident. This will give employers a complete picture of the situation, should they need to assert their rights in the event of a claim.

Office parties making a comeback after the pandemic is an opportunity to celebrate and recognize employees’ efforts. However, employers’ oversight of this event is not limited to the event itself. Measures and reminders should be in place beforehand. More often than not, it’s thanks to these precautions that the party is one to remember.

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