lampshadeWe all have an office party horror story.  The partner who got too sloppy and friendly with the summer student, the awkward aversion of eye contact the next day, or the overly honest comments from the disgruntled employee.

While holiday parties can be an important employee morale booster, for the employer they can present a minefield of potential liability and complaints. For start-ups and entrepreneurs, the informal culture can particularly be an invitation to indulge and live it up in the name of hipster, relaxed office counter-culture.

Employer host liability, however, applies to all workplaces.  Even if it’s a Saturday night and you’re at a fancy bar, the employee’s right to harassment free work environment extends to off-site employer sponsored events. If your company’s New Year’s resolutions have something to do with avoiding human rights complaints, harassment allegations or claims for social host negligence here are our top tips to get you started on the right path.

  1. Go dry or go early!

The easiest, and most unpopular, way to avoid a lot of issues is to not serve alcohol. If this is not feasible, consider holding a holiday brunch or lunch, where alcohol is available, but people will be less inclined to overdo it. You’ve likely already dismissed this option, so move to Tip #2.

  1. Control the booze

If you are going to serve alcohol, avoid free-for-all access or a self-serve bar where employees are drinking without being monitored. Consider using drink tickets to support your future legal defense that you did not encourage people to get hammered at a work-sponsored event. To manage your liability, it is a good idea to have the party hosted by a licensed outside venue where their trained staff can serve alcohol (and share the liability).  Provide plenty of non-alcoholic drink options and stop serving at least an hour before the party is over.   Be sure to provide plenty of food.

  1. Make sure everyone gets home safely.

Some employees will still over indulge. In the event of an accident after the party, employers can be partly or fully liable for losses suffered and caused by an impaired employee. This can include passengers and other road users. As the party host, employers have a duty to make sure employees get home safely. Consider providing transportation such as taxi chits to and from the party or offer hotel rooms nearby to those who cannot make it home.  That $50 taxi chit or $200 hotel room is cheaper than a trial.

  1. Who is the boss?

Employees will typically take their cue from management – if management is getting wasted, than there is no reason not to indulge in several of the free cocktails.  Perhaps it’s expected to be part of the team. If you are a young boss and your employees are your age or were your friends before the start-up, the balance is tricky, but still necessary to maintain.  You’re the boss, despite any imposer syndrome or collective management instincts you may have. Don’t be Debbie Downer, but you can leave the lampshade attire for the intern you didn’t plan to hire back anyway.