Christmas parties and intoxication: a cocktail of responsibilities

December 6th, 2018

By Geneviève Beaudin and Mélanie Sauriol, partners

Quebec is already white with snow, and the radio stations are playing Christmas carols endlessly... that can only mean one thing: office Christmas parties are right around the corner! While this time of year is all about the festivities, it can be easy to slip up in any workplace. Everyone could benefit from a little reminder on how they’re expected to behave.

Don’t leave your responsibilities at home

An employer-sponsored Christmas party can lead to multiple situations where the employer must take responsibility, even if the event is held outside the usual workplace. No matter the case, employers must remember their obligation to take appropriate measures to “protect the health, safety and dignity” of their employees, as provided for in the Civil Code of Quebec.

If, during the party, an employee is subjected to psychological harassment (including sexual harassment), a complaint may be lodged to the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST), even if the event is an employer-sponsored party held outside the usual working hours and workplace. The conditions specific to this recourse must obviously be met.

In return, employees should also behave how their employer would expect them to behave in the workplace. Any employee failing to do so may be appropriately disciplined by the employer, depending on the circumstances.

Should you serve “mocktails” or offer alcohol in moderation?

While alcohol is traditionally served at Christmas parties, employers can certainly decide to throw an alcohol-free party. If alcohol is present, however, it should always be consumed in moderation. It is important to remember that the party is and should remain an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the year, and is not a time to lose control. Too much alcohol at a party can quickly become a nightmare for both the employer and the employees attending the unfortunate event.

Some tips to moderate consumption:

  • Limit the number of drinks per person, for example, by offering drink coupons.

  • Close the bar or end the drink service a few hours before the party ends.

  • Offer a variety of non-alcoholic drinks.

  • Allow guests to use an on-site blood alcohol content detector.

If alcohol is served at the party, employers should ensure their employees get home safely. A variety of options can be offered, such as car pooling with designated drivers, reimbursement of taxi fares, Cool Taxi coupons, safe-ride-home services, etc.

Can cannabis join the party or not?

Following the legalization of cannabis this fall, should employers allow guests to use it during a Christmas party? It’s a reasonable question and the employer must provide an answer before the day of the party.

On one hand, the Cannabis Act prohibits smoking in the workplace. The same Act also expressly provides that an employer, by virtue of its right of management, may regulate or even prohibit any other form of cannabis use. Thus, if the party is held in the workplace, it will be prohibited from smoking cannabis under the Act. However, the employer may provide for broader restrictions, such as the prohibition on the use of cannabis in any other form.

On the other hand, if the party is held in a place other than the workplace, the Act may also provide for restrictions on the use of cannabis. For example, bars and restaurants are also places to be banned from smoking cannabis. Considering this is an employer-sponsored event, the employer could also set more restrictions. The workplace and industry in which the employer operates can help him in his thinking.

Furthermore, employers will have to decide whether or not to allow the use of cannabis at the party, as well as whether or not employees under the influence of cannabis will be permitted to attend. In any case, employers must clearly communicate their expectations to employees prior to the party.

Some helpful advice

Before the party

- Reminder: it never hurts to send a reminder to employees of your policies, particularly regarding harassment, alcohol and drugs, a few days before the party. Emphasize that these policies are also in force at the party and that employees are expected to behave in the same way they would in the workplace.

- Expectations: clearly express your expectations to employees regarding the use of alcohol and cannabis during the party.

Day of the party

- Lead by example: while management staff is encouraged to attend, the fact remains that they still represent the employers, even at the party. They should drink in moderation, follow the rules, behave appropriately, etc.

- Zero tolerance: management staff should definitely intervene, even at the party, if they witness inappropriate remarks/behaviour or excessive drinking.

After the party

- Feedback: ask your management staff to report any specific incidents that occurred during the party that could require disciplinary action or constitute harassment.

- Action: take any necessary action if you are informed of inappropriate behaviour that happened during the party. The message must be clear, for the offenders as well as for any employees who may have been subjected to such behaviour.

Whatever type of party you decide to throw this month, do not hesitate to set boundaries in order to prevent misconduct...