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  December 12, 2023

Ask Sarah Best – December 2023 NBCTA Newsletter

Regional HR Consultant, Sarah Best, answers a question from an employer about office staff parties in this December issue of the Northern BC Tourism Association newsletter.

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I need some advice regarding my Christmas party with the staff. It’s really important to me to celebrate the holidays and show staff appreciation and I know how much most of my staff enjoy the get-together.  I usually plan it so they can bring a guest, have an open bar, great dinner, and either a DJ or live music with dancing. For the most part, everybody seemed to have a really good time, but last year went a little sideways. Unfortunately, there were some nasty comments spread around about outfits and behavior on the dancefloor, and some arguments during the party that kept going with workplace bickering after the event, and I am pretty sure a couple of people drove home after having a number of drinks. I want to still have a big event, with dinner, drinks and dancing, but how do I avoid the rest?



The potential for liability on the employer during a work-organized event as you’ve described could be significant, so I am going to recommend that you set some limitations going into this holiday season and your 2023 party to protect yourself and your staff. Ideally, you want your staff to have as much fun as possible, but let’s make sure that we explore the safety aspects as well!

1. Set the conduct precedent before the event: 

Staff events may not always occur in the workplace, but can still be considered an extension of it, so bullying or harassment that occurs at a social event could still be filed as either a WorksafeBC or Human Rights Claim. In addition to that, any ongoing conflict that occurs in the workplace afterward could contribute to a toxic workplace culture, and result in claims or staff loss if not addressed. I’ve noted the benefit of a written policy below, but if you don’t have the time or capacity to develop or implement one of those beforehand, don’t worry – you can still share the following information in a staff meeting or via email.  I recommend having staff sign-off on attending/receiving the information so that you have some documentation to show you’ve discussed this. It doesn’t sound like you had issues with conflicts and respectful communication prior to last year’s event, so set the same expectations to staff that you have when they are on shift: you expect respectful communication, that there is a zero tolerance policy for any language that could be considered bullying, harassment or discriminatory, and that any interactions like this must be reported to you as soon as possible, either during or directly after the event.

2. Limit bar to drink ticket access only:  The behavior you are seeking to avoidcan happen at social work events for a few reasons: there is a perception that conduct expectations are lessened at social events, there might be poor judgement in terms of what is and isn’t welcome (ie, people can get carried away in conversation), and the alcohol consumption can cause loss of inhibition where behavior is quite a bit different than it would be at work. I recommend getting rid of the open bar concept and letting staff know beforehand that the drinks will be limited to tickets only, and that you will provide them at the start of the night (ie, X number of tickets per guest). I would expect this will greatly reduce your event costs as well! Granted, there is always the possibility that 1 person can end up with several other guests’ tickets (ie, someone is leaving early so they hand them off to the rest at their table); however, it does limit the potential for alcohol poisoning or extreme intoxication that could come from the open bar if someone is struggling to self-regulate. Make sure you have plenty of non-alcoholic alternatives as well; this provides an option for non-drinkers, designated drivers and those who have used up their alcoholic drink tickets to still access the bar.

3. Arrange for safe transportation and/or Designated Drivers:  You’ve flagged your concern about this matter above, and I will just reiterate how terribly concerning and unsafe this is, with a huge potential fall-out should a worst-case scenario happen and there is an accident after they leave the event. I strongly recommend you take some action to limit your liability and (as much as you can!) the potential chance for this to happen in the future.

Depending on where you are located, alternative transportation isn’t always easy…. Smaller communities may not have taxis or ride-share options, so ensure that you offer alternatives (such as arranging for/hiring designated drivers) and spread this news widely, both before and during the event – that way, staff can be dropped off or have a driver to operate their vehicle, and don’t need to be concerned about leaving their vehicle overnight at a (possibly) unsecured location. As part of Number 1, when you are setting conduct limitations, I recommend you note this as part of your expectation that there will be no driving after drinking.

4. Consider an Events Policy that covers the above:  Sometimes work events are referenced in related policies, such as Bullying and Harassment; however, there is some benefit to having a standalone policy, especially if you do more than just the holiday event each year. A policy focused on events can address the conduct expectations, the business’ statement on intoxication and driving, and showcase your focus on safety and respectful interactions. In addition, you can note an expectation that staff will share the highlights of the policy with their guests, with the hopes that it mitigates potential conflicts or unwanted conduct from those individuals as well. Having the policy in place means that you can reference it before each event, and a new pattern of conduct can be developed.

5. Look for training opportunities: Educating staff is one of the best ways to avoid the situations you’ve described above, and go2HR offers programs that may be of benefit to you and your staff.  Safer Spaces has courses for both employees and management staff, and addresses concerns like sexual harassment, bullying and interactions at social engagements.  In addition to the course itself, it also has a toolkit with a Code of Conduct for employers to review or utilize. Find out more here:  https://www.go2hr.ca/health-safety/sexual-harassment .

Does this situation sound familiar to you? For more information about the suggestions above, or tailored recommendations for your specific business needs, contact Sarah Best at sbest@go2hr.ca

go2HR is BC’s tourism & hospitality, human resources and health & safety association driving strong workforces and safe workplaces that deliver world class tourism and hospitality experiences in BC. Follow us on LinkedIn or reach out to our team.

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