When it comes to planning a company holiday party, there’s no doubt you want the event to be great. You want people to get into the spirit of the holidays, let their hair down, celebrate with team members and create memories that result in a more cohesive office team. However, it’s all too easy for people to get caught up in the festivities, especially when alcohol is involved, and bad decisions can result in a legal mess for your company or organization. While a company holiday party can expose a corporation to increased risk and liability, there are many steps a diligent planner can take to avoid legal pitfalls. In order to plan a great event for your team, safety, responsibility and crisis response need to be top of mind during pre-planning through execution – that’s the moral code of a planner.
We’re here to help you plan like a seasoned pro, so here’s an overview of the rules you need to follow, the responsibilities you should be aware of as a planner, and our helpful tips for avoiding potential issues. (Disclaimer: we’re not legal professionals so this is for information purposes only)
What You Need to Know
“Knowledge is power. Information is liberating.” – Kofi Annan
Let’s take a look at the various rules and responsibilities you need to be aware of when planning a company party of any kind in the province of BC (many of the rules apply for the rest of Canada as well).
Rule #1: You must apply for a liquor license if you want to serve alcohol at your event and your event is either taking place in your office, in a public space or any other off-site facility that doesn’t have an existing liquor license ex. loft space booked through Air BnB.
According to the government of BC, a “Special Occassion License is available to event hosts who wish to provide temporary or infrequent liquor service at events” such as private functions. The official host of the event needs to apply, not the event planner or social committee so in most cases your President or CEO is the best person to apply. The application costs $25 and the process is relatively easy online https://solo.bcldb.com/ (Sage Tip: events over 500 people require police and/or licensing board review so to avoid this potentially lengthy process, keep your event to 499 people or less).
If your event is taking place at a venue with an existing liquor license, then they already have the necessary government approval to serve alcohol so a Special Occasion License is not required.
If your event is taking place in a public space, then you’ll also need to obtain an event permit from the city. This can typically be done through the city’s website but in some cases it is necessary to apply in person.
Rule # 2: Before you can apply for a liquor license, you need to complete the Serving It Right: The Responsible Beverage Service Program.
Trust us, this sounds more daunting than it actually is. To complete the program, you need to take a basic online course and pass the online exam in order to obtain a Serving It Right certificate and number. The online program can be taken from any computer and costs $35. Once you’ve taken the exam, your results will be immediately delivered to you, and if you pass, you’ll be able to print off your ‘official’ certificate. Previously, a Serving It Right certificate had no expiry date but as of September 15, 2015 all certificates will be valid for 5 years so you will need to reapply after it expires. Here’s a link to the online course: http://www.servingitright.com/course_intro.html
Rule # 3: The event planner, host and company/organization have a legal ‘duty of care’
According to the provincial government, “Once you have a Special Occasion Licence (SOL), if you serve alcohol to someone who becomes impaired as a result, you may be held legally liable for that person’s subsequent behaviour. As a licensee, you have a ‘duty of care’ — which means you must protect patrons at your event and others from harm that may be associated with the activity of drinking. This includes harm which may occur on the premises of your event, as well as harm which may occur after the patron has left the premises.” If your event is taking place at a licensed venue, then the duty of care is shared with the venue and service staff, however a company will still want to protect themselves from partial liability by taking steps to limit alcohol consumption and ensure intoxicated guests do not drive home from the event by providing alternative transportation options.
Duty of care extends beyond alcohol consumption and is a general “legal obligation which is imposed on an individual requiring adherence to a standard of reasonable care while performing any acts that could foreseeably harm others.”
Rule # 4: Food and non-alcoholic beverages must be served at the event.
If you’re serving alcohol at your event, it’s important to have a constant supply of food and non-alcoholic beverages available for your guests. Food and hydration are important for avoiding over-consumption and intoxication.
Rule # 5: You are responsible for your guests’ personal safety.
At a company holiday party, any accidents or injuries can be considered work-related, making the company liable for any resulting damages. No matter where your event is held, it may be considered an extension of the workplace so policies that guide behaviour in the workplace apply at the office party as well (ex. violence, harassment, discrimination etc).
Now that you have a basic understanding of the rules you need to adhere to and the responsibilities you have as a planner, here are some helpful tips to avoid potential liabilities while still partaking in holiday cheer.
Tips for Avoiding Alcohol Over Consumption Issues
- Hold the event at a licensed, off-site venue with professional bartenders and servers who are certified for safe alcohol service. Speak with the vendor about the protocol their team follows for preventing people from getting intoxicated and for being served while intoxicated.
- If your party is a reception-style event and is more than 2 hours long, you should consider having multiple service times to offer new food items at various times throughout the event and encourage guests to continue eating. If your event is a plated meal or buffet and is longer than 2 hours, you should arrange a snack table that gets replenished with small, casual food items throughout the evening. Select starchy, high-protein options as they slow alcohol absorption into the blood stream. Avoid salty foods which encourage more drinking (yes, that bowl of peanuts is actually a calling to drink more).
- Offer non-alcoholic beverages like fruit infused waters, natural sparkling sodas, and virgin cocktails or punches. Consider creating a drool-worthy non-alcoholic signature drink and ask bartenders to actively promote it.
- Rather than hosting an open bar, offer drink tickets as people arrive.
- Stop serving alcohol at least 30 minutes before the end of the event.
- Discourage driving to/from the event and provide alternative transportation arrangements like taxi vouchers (easily arranged with your local taxi company), limo shares, shuttle bus services to key public transportation hubs or Uber gift certificates. Over the years, we’ve found that employees view these as generous gifts rather than a means of controlling personal freedom.
Tips for Avoiding Personal Injury
- Inspect your venue to ensure it meets your safety standards. Pay attention to things like exits, emergency lighting, and tripping hazards. If you have people attending with mobility challenges, make sure there’s a safe way for them to enter and navigate the event.
- Hire a security team to escort people to their cars. Parkades and surface parking lots are especially dangerous when dimly lit and located in a secluded area or unsafe part of the city.
- Keep your eye on the weather and consider cancelling the event or changing the date if an incoming storm will make it particularly dangerous for your attendees to get to the party.
- Develop an emergency plan that includes the nearest hospital to the venue, steps to be taken if there’s a general emergency, and protocol if someone is injured and requires medical assistance. Be sure to include special considerations for employees with disabilities.
Tips for Avoiding Sexual Harassment and Discrimination
- Set employees up for success by clearly communicating what will and won’t be allowed at the event. Attendees need to clearly understand that the usual company rules apply at the event and that any inappropriate behaviour will result in discipline.
- Create a PG-13 event by avoiding things like mistletoe, burlesque dancers, music with sexual innuendos or anything else that leads to or encourages physical contact, unwanted social pressure or inappropriate conversation.
- Make sure the party is framed as a “holiday” party and not tied to any specific religious tradition.
- Alcohol is often involved when people say inappropriate things or make unwelcome advances so be sure to limit alcohol consumption.
- Deal with inappropriate actions promptly and discreetly before they become a bigger issue. For example, if someone is dancing in a way that’s inappropriate for a workplace environment, pull them aside immediately before things get out of hand.
- Invite employee spouses or families to the event.
Tips for Avoiding Food Borne Illness
- Check with your venue or caterer to make sure they have food safety certification.
- Never let buffet items stay out for more than 2 hours.
- Ask your caterer or venue team to put out smaller quantities and refill as needed.
- Make sure new food is brought out in a new serving dish rather than being added to an already-filled dish.
Tips for Mitigating Overall Company Risks
- Host your event outside of normal working hours and at a location outside the office. An event held during work hours is more likely to be considered directly related to work for liability purposes.
- Make attendance voluntary so employees know attendance is not required for continued employment, advancement or any other benefit.
- Clearly communicate that the event is for purely for social purposes.
- Hold a daytime or breakfast event.
- Only use vendors that have their own insurance coverage. Request a copy of their Certificate of Insurance (COI) and be sure that it has sufficient coverage. Generally, a minimum of $1,000,000 is recommended for personal injury coverage at events. When reviewing vendor contracts, pay close attention to indemnity clauses or hold harmless agreements that release the vendor from liability.
Remember, ‘duty of care’ means your event isn’t over until your guests get home safely. That’s a lot of pressure for any one person to take on, but after you’ve hosted one safe and successful event, replicating your winning formula will be a breeze. Want more advice to protect yourself and your company, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.