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‘Tis the Season to be Jolly… But be Careful!
Workwise Newsletter

With the holiday season upon us, employers are advised to establish clear workplace policies on alcohol and drug consumption, plan events with safety considerations like drink tickets and alternative transport, and closely monitor events. 


For many organizations, the holiday season provides the perfect opportunity to gather with colleagues and clients to connect and celebrate. However, organizations that host parties involving the service of alcohol or cannabis products may be liable for any damages that arise if an attendee is overserved or drives while impaired and hurts themselves or others. Hosts can also be responsible for instances of harassment, assaults, and other accidents, including physical injuries, that occur during a social event. Knowing how to protect your organization and celebrate responsibly is the key to managing this risk.

The Supreme Court of Canada has established long ago that commercial hosts owe a common law duty of care to the public about not over-serving patrons, and that purely social hosts do not owe the same sort of duty of care concerning their purely social guests. Employers may not owe the same duties as commercial hosts, like bars and restaurants, but they are not necessarily purely social hosts either. Employers hosting holiday events for the benefit of staff or clients where alcohol or cannabis may be served should assume that they owe a duty of care to their guests and to others, such as users of the road where guests may be driving home. In addition, employers have a positive duty to ensure the safety of their employees in the workplace. In this regard, serving alcohol or drugs at work-related events does create risk for employers under occupational health and safety and human rights legislation, as well as at common law.

In accordance with an employer’s duty to ensure the safety of their employees, the following are relevant considerations in assessing whether employers may be liable for damages arising from employee intoxication at the workplace and during work-related events:

  • Whether it was reasonably foreseeable by the employer that there was a risk of harm;
  • Whether the service of alcohol or drugs to employees was monitored or limited; and 
  • Whether the employer took steps to ensure the safety of safety of employees.

As an employer’s degree of responsibility and risk depends on its level of awareness of, involvement in and/or control over the event, there are several steps employers can take to manage risk for work-related events involving alcohol and drugs:

  1. Workplace policies and procedures – Ensure your organization has clear policies and procedures regarding alcohol and drug consumption at the workplace and during work-related events, as well as appropriate reporting structures if something goes wrong. Employees should be educated on these policies and related topics such as workplace safety and harassment to set clear expectations and promote responsibility in the workplace.
  2. Party plan appropriately – Ensure your chosen venue has the appropriate insurance, qualifications (including provincially-regulated ones such as ProServe), and experience to host your event. Implement a drink ticket system and ensure there is plenty of food, alcohol-free alternatives, and other activities available to reduce the focus on alcohol consumption. Also ensure employees have a safe ride home by offering taxi chits or ride-sharing vouchers to limit the risk of intoxicated driving.
  3. Monitor consumption closely – Consider designating a senior or management employee to be responsible for monitoring the event and taking “temperature checks” as required. Empower them to make decisions, give directions to the venue, and shut things down at the appropriate time. Employers should maintain a reasonable amount of oversight and supervision over the event to ensure employees celebrate safely and responsibly.

Field Law can provide tailored advice to help protect your organization from liability this holiday season. We are also available to provide urgent support in the event of workplace incidents. If you have any questions, please contact Austin Ward in Calgary, Joël Michaud in Edmonton, or any member of Field Law’s Labour + Employment Group.