How to throw a work party without getting sued

Everyone who has ever worked in an office has one of those stories about a wild holiday party that got a little out of control. The corporate holiday event should be a time to kick-back and connect with colleagues outside of the normal grind, but did you know that as an employer, you can be held responsible for what happens at those parties if your employees’ behaviour crosses the line?

“Social events held by companies are considered an extension of the employer’s workplace. If employees are invited to attend these types of events, the employer must be mindful that they, and the employee, can be held liable for anything that happens during this event,” said Aimee Rieck, Senior Human Resources Manager at Workopolis.

Here are some things that you should look out for to ensure that you are covered if a holiday party goes wrong:

Alcohol consumption

Over-serving at a work party is a common occurrence. An intoxicated employee could cause injuries or damages to themselves, property, or other guests. A commercial host is responsible to ensure that alcohol consumption is being monitored to reduce the risk of liability.

Prior to the event, employers may choose to send out a (gentle) email reminder about party etiquette and safety, and avoid making alcohol and drinking the emphasis of the party.

Additional precautions that employers can take to avoid over-serving alcohol include:

  • Serving food at the event
  • Not providing an “open bar”
  • Avoid binge-activities such as doing shots, playing drinking games, or buying rounds for coworkers
  • Using designated drink tickets to reduce the amount of alcohol served to each guest
  • Ensuring servers are Smart Serve certified, and that the event venue is properly licensed to serve alcohol
  • Offering a wide selection of non-alcoholic alternatives
  • Consider a morning or day event, such as a company-wide brunch, which minimizes the likelihood of alcohol being overly-consumed
  • Provide transportation (i.e. carpooling, taxi vouchers) for employees to get home
  • Avoid “off-site” drinking before or after the event
  • Designate members of the management team to keep an eye on the guests to monitor over-drinking and ensure that intoxicated guests have a plan to get home safely
  • Regular announcements throughout the event that discourage drinking and driving, and informs employees how they can get home safely

The key to a safe and successful celebration is proper organization and willingness to extend the budget to include the necessary considerations. Plan accordingly and cover your bases – this is the key to hosting a liability-free event.


Employers should ensure they know and understand the laws that pertain to harassment within their regulatory legal regimes and how it can affect them, especially before any large corporate event where drinking and “non-work” talk can occur. Policies and programs that the company has created regarding harassment should be reviewed with employees at least once a year to keep appropriate behaviour top of mind.

“Reminding managers of company policies and expectations prior to the holiday party can also help monitor employees’ behaviour. Reporting incidents to senior management should be encouraged, and given timely and proper attention for resolution,” Rieck said.

When possible, employers may also wish to consider inviting spouses and significant others to corporate holiday celebrations. This may significantly reduce incidents of offensive behaviour.

While there is no requirement for employers to report cases of harassment (unless the Ministry of Labour becomes involved in the investigation), from a Human Rights perspective, any harassment claims put forth to the Ontario Human Rights Commission that arise out of the employment relationship could leave a company open to liability. This includes any incidents that may happen in a social event. Employers need to be vigilant to ensure that they are protecting themselves and their staff.

Does it make a difference if a party is hosted in the office or at a third-party venue, such as a bar or restaurant?

“There isn’t much of a difference,” Rieck said. “If a company is holding a party at an external venue, this venue becomes an extension of the workplace. If there is something that occurs from a health and safety standpoint in which the employer or the employee had control, then they could still be held liable.”

Keep these tips in mind before hosting any of your own holiday celebrations. Parties should be fun and safe for everyone attending. Do your due-diligence beforehand to protect the best interest of your employees and set everyone up for a great new year.


Sonya Matheson is a recruitment and employer branding consultant with Workopolis. Specializing in candidate experience, she has been working to help companies hire better for the last 15 years.


See also:
The origins of the job interview
The rise and fall (and rise) of performance reviews


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