The Office Party: A {Cautionary} Winter's Tale

As December arrives, our minds turn to the holidays: turkey, eggnog, and a long-lived tradition — the office christmas party.

The office christmas party is a time for colleagues to relax a little and celebrate the coming season, and an opportunity for management to show their staff appreciation for another year of hard work.

The case of Huffman v. Mitchells Plastics, however, serves as a useful reminder to employees and employers alike of what to avoid at the work christmas party.

Mr. Huffman brought a human rights application for discrimination on the basis of a disability, alcoholism, after his employment was terminated. In his application, he wrote as follows:

I went to the company Christmas party. I ended up getting intoxicated there. I was bought drinks there by members of management. I was harassing my supervisors and other members of management upon being intoxicated... I don't recall all the events that allegedly took place as I blacked out toward the end of the party.

The Adjudicator remarked that Mr. Huffman's conduct included "his making physical threats and sexually inappropriate comments to fellow employees, members of management and their spouses."

Mr. Huffman asserted that his employer knew that he was an alcoholic and, as a result, his employment should not have been terminated for being drunk at a company event. Mr. Huffman, however, was unsuccesful in making this argument. His human rights application was consequently dismissed.

There are a number of steps that employees and employers may take to ensure that their christmas party is a success, and does not devolve, as it did in the above case, into conflict, discipline, or litigation.

Employees:

  • Do not feel obligated to attend the party;
  • Monitor your alcohol consumption; 
  • Avoid 'loose lips'; - do not discuss private work communications, spread gossip or make promises you cannot keep;
  • Try to avoid directly engaging with any colleague that becomes belligerent, overly-friendly or aggressive;
  • Immediately report any improper conduct, such as insults or sexually inappropriate remarks, to management.

Employers:

  • Ensure the venue is accessible to all staff;
  • Do not operate an open bar;
  • Ensure that water and soft drinks are readily available throughout;
  • Discourage your management team from drinking to excess;
  • Encourage your management to lead by example and set a professional tone;
  • Remind all employees that the workplace harassment policy remains in full effect; and that all normal workplace rules apply;
  • Provide taxi chits to your employees and expressly forbid anyone from leaving the event absent a safe mode of transport home;

The Vey Willetts team wishes everyone a happy, safe and healthy holiday season!