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Protect Your Employees By Not Serving Them Alcohol

When Hallowe'en is past and holiday lights are making their appearance, we can be sure that office party season isn't far behind. It's this time of year when employees face a heightened risk of accidents (primarily vehicular) due to impairment. That's hardly an upbeat, "seasons greetings", way for me to start off, but it's a message every employer needs to hear.
Canadian court cases have firmly established the employer’s duty of care towards employees who consume alcohol at company events. The employer has a duty to take active steps to prevent injuries as a result of its employees’ alcohol consumption. Put another way, the employer’s duty is to ensure its employees do not become so intoxicated as to interfere with their ability to return home safely. 
There is only one sure way to avoid accidents due to impairment and the resulting employer host liability – eliminate alcohol from company events. But, if banning alcohol from staff events isn’t a satisfactory solution, the employer can take steps to protect its employees and, ultimately, itself. 
The employer should establish a policy governing service and consumption of alcohol at company events. Establishing such a policy ensures that it approaches the organization of parties from a position of control (which is far better than simply crossing your fingers that something tragic won't happen).
Such a policy has two objectives, both of which are aimed at preventing the occurrence of an accident. The first is to put employees on notice that staff events are not an excuse for consuming alcohol to the point of posing a danger to themselves and others. The second objective is to establish some basic rules to ensure the manner in which the event is set up discourages excessive drinking.
The policy should start off with a statement that the company opposes over-consumption and, in particular, opposes the operation of a vehicle (or engaging in other inherently dangerous activities) while impaired. It should emphasize that the purpose of the policy is to establish a protocol for responsible consumption of alcohol at staff events.
The policy should also establish rules governing the hosting of company events where alcohol will be served. This is the part of the policy which is meant to manage the event organizers to ensure company events do not lead to a tragic accident. This won’t be a complete list of “dos and don’ts” but will establish certain basic guidelines.
Aside from the published policy, the employer should distribute to its event organizers a list of instructions on how to, and how not to, organize a staff event. The organizers should be made to understand that organizing company events is considered to be an element of their employment. Disciplinary measures should be imposed if they fail to follow established guidelines.
Beyond implementing a policy, the following list of tips should assist in avoiding alcohol-related injuries. 
Communicate to the employees, in writing, that they may attend on the conditions that they will accept responsibility for their own consumption, will moderate their intake of alcohol, and will co-operate with your efforts to ensure their safety. Provide a selection of non-alcoholic beverages and substantial foods and encourage your guests to spend more time eating than drinking.
Have your management team set a good example by remaining sober. Consider demanding employees turn in their car keys as a condition of being served alcohol. Obtain telephone numbers in advance for spouses or other family members in the event you need to contact them.
Hire or appoint a trained person to monitor alcohol consumption and behaviour and to take action when impairment is detected. Set and enforce strict limits on the number of drinks an employee may purchase (be especially careful to eliminate “bulk” buying later in the evening). Ensure that the bar closes well prior to the end of the event.
Provide designated drivers or alternate means of transportation directly home for employees who have consumed alcohol. Don’t be reluctant to contact the police immediately in the event a potentially impaired employee manages to leave unaccompanied.
Don’t assume your company is protected from liability simply because the event is held at a commercial establishment or has a “cash” bar. Don't distribute free “drink tickets” or provide an “open” bar and definitely don’t allow the employees to mix and pour their own drinks.
Don't allow employees who are exhibiting outward signs of impairment to continue drinking. Don’t ever leave the decision of whether to drive in the hands of the potentially impaired employee. 
Don’t hesitate to invoke your authority as the employer in assuring compliance with your efforts to ensure your employees’ safety. Most importantly, don't allow a potentially impaired employee to leave the event unless accompanied by a designated driver (or by some other sober person) who has clear instructions to get the employee directly home.
Each organization must choose whether to take pro-active steps to protect its employees (and the people whose lives they might affect). Your choices won't necessarily be popular but, if you make the right ones, you'll know you’ve done everything you can to ensure they, and the people around them, enjoy a safe holiday season.
Robert Smithson is a partner at Pushor Mitchell LLP in Kelowna practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law. For more information about his practice, log on to