There’s nothing quite like bonding with colleagues over a glass of cabernet sauvignon or egg nog, reflecting on a successful work year gone by, all while taking time to look forward to what lies ahead in the New Year. Indeed, company holiday parties are a wonderful opportunity to relax with employees or co-workers in an informal setting. They’re also a chance to refocus, articulate a business plan or vision, and energize team morale. 

The best ones are planned with the organization’s corporate culture in mind. That means tailoring a gathering to be either casual or formal and choosing the right venue with the right activities and dress code to align with your employees’ tastes and lifestyle preferences. Doing provides an opportunity to reinforce your ideal company culture in a fun, rewarding way. It also helps to create opportunities for employees to interact with workers from other teams and departments.  Diversity and inclusion surveys find that the more people get to know each other from parties, team events or work projects, the less bias or discrimination will occur in organizations.

So, holiday parties clearly have the potential to bring a workforce together. But at the same time, they’re so laden with social liability risk that many organizations have limited or cut employee holiday parties altogether. To be clear, that’s almost always an unnecessary overreaction to a manageable set of challenges, even if the approach is understandable.

The major problem for organizations is that when employees party and imbibe, often past reasonable limits, their behaviour can sometimes become inappropriate for a workplace setting. And make no mistake, even if it’s held off-site at a restaurant or bar, a sanctioned holiday party is very much a company event that requires employees to act accordingly, and employers to be cognizant of potential HR-related problems. 

Court rulings such as Hunt vs. Sutton Group Incentive Realty Inc. (2001), have long since placed an onus on employers to predict and do their utmost to mitigate potential health and safety risks (including harassment or bullying) for employees, guests and third parties, even while away from the office. That includes ensuring intoxicated patrons of a work party don’t have the opportunity to drive home. As such, many organizations now provide transportation or taxi chits to encourage employees to leave their cars parked for the night.

Others plan proactively, such as choosing a venue close to the workplace to discourage driving, and outside of a lively bar district where the temptation might exist to hop between bars and keep the party going well after hours and past the point of intoxication.  Many organizations now appoint a designated sober manager to keep an eye on the festivities and play potential buzz kill if things get overly rowdy or inappropriate, all while ensuring there are plenty of filling food items and non-alcoholic drinks on offer to help pace alcohol consumption. Nixing the always-popular open bar is another tool to help mitigate the risk of your party becoming a drunk and debaucherous affair.

Slotting in time for management presentations (PowerPoint, anyone?!), an award presentation to recognize a job well done, raffles or games helps cut down on binge drinking and cannabis overuse by encouraging employees to consume less for a longer period of time, even if doing the so all but guarantees your party won’t win kudos for wildest corporate event of the year. 

Still, there are two other key points to keep in mind when preparing for this year’s company holiday party. 

The first is that, depending on when your yuletide gathering is held, cannabis edibles will be officially legal in Canada. While they may not be widely available, there is a fair chance someone might arrive to your event impaired or with edibles in hand—and future impairment in mind. The greatest challenge with edibles is their ease of transportation, ability to be incorporated into common food staples such as brownies, and their heightened potency with often delayed effects. Be on the lookout for signs of cannabis impairment, particularly in cases where an employee or guest is clearly high, but then compounds their intoxication by consuming alcohol. The two drugs can be a nasty combination for some people. 

Lastly, remember that the hangover from a holiday party can be long. Not from over-drinking, but from the potential fallout from party-related misbehaviour. That could be sexual harassment, inappropriate comments or even aggressive actions that cast a pall over the celebrations. Some employees may be offended or affected by an experience at your holiday party, but will only report the issue weeks after the fact, once they’ve had time to process the incident. 

This scenario plays out far more than you might expect. Watch for awkward interactions between employees or signs of lax productivity, increased absenteeism, direct conflicts or disengagement. All can be signs of a rift in your workplace culture. If an incident is brought to light, be prepared to investigate any allegation, interview both the complainant and accused, and then report your findings to all parties in advance of taking potential disciplinary action. 

And once you’ve prepared for the worst, done your best to eliminate all risk and taken pains to ensure employees are safely tucked into bed after cutting a rug with the boss, take some time to relax yourself. You’ve worked hard all year—now’s the time to enjoy the fruits of your labour.