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Howard Levitt: The holiday work party is back in force. Just don't throw caution to the wind

Christmas party
Christmas party

Howard Levitt and Muneeza Sheikh 

After years of virtual parties on zoom (with partygoers sitting in their kitchens feigning joy while staring at a computer screen in an ugly sweater), employees are ready to pull their masks down and party.

Even as we organized our own firm party, it became clear that restaurants and general party venues were busier than ever this holiday season. Food prices are up, party planners are swamped and hopeful partygoers are ready to throw caution to the wind and celebrate the beginning of a COVID-freeish year with their colleagues.

There are numerous reasons that employers, large and small, should most certainly consider a celebration this year.

In the world of remote working, morale has been low, and often employees complain about a lack of motivation. A party of any kind does wonders to lift spirits, a work-related party allows employees to celebrate with colleagues with whom they have spent many virtual hours.

A party can also allows employers to show appreciation. While year-end bonuses for most employees are in the works, in a large number of cases employees see their bonuses as their standard compensation. A party gives the management team a chance to deliver praise in person, something that can do wonders for morale.

It is a chance for employers to literally celebrate their employees and, where applicable, clients and customers as well. It can provide a great basis for a continued building of the business, and allowing long-standing customers and clients to forge more meaningful relationships with the employees they work with.

Do not underestimate the power of doing things in person: in many ways, the pandemic has taught us that not all “work” can be done virtually/remotely and saying “thank-you” and “congratulations” rings more true when done face to face. Parties give you as the employer a chance to give the employees something that they likely have not experienced in a long time.

Hosting a holiday event is a great way for management to engage with employees, and, as important, for employees to engage with one another.

As our clients continue to turn to us for support on holding holiday gatherings, we provide our consent wholeheartedly, but with some lawyerly warnings.

While a COVID-free world appears on the horizon, we are not there yet. Public health officials continue to encourage indoor mask use, and strongly suggest that employers should exercise some caution when looking at holiday parties.

There are also the regular pre-COVID risks that seem to be forgotten in the midst of all of the planning.

Here we detail what employers should be cautious of when planning a celebration for 2022:

  • Ensure that your employees know that your holiday event is not mandatory. This decreases the risk of employees feeling forced to attend what may very well be a large gathering;

  • Remind your employees that it is up to them to continue to follow public health guidelines, meaning, they can and should wear a mask at any holiday gathering if they feel comfortable doing so;

  • Conversely, remind them in any celebratory invitation, that restrictions have been lifted, as such holding a celebratory event is entirely lawful and wearing or not wearing a mask is now a personal choice;

  • Remind your employees, that indeed, this remains a workplace event. As such, all workplace policies continue to apply — employees in all workplace environments are to be free from harassment, discrimination, excess alcohol and that they must behave appropriately. Misbehaving at a holiday party could attract the same disciplinary measures as those in the office (virtual or otherwise);

  • If you can’t fathom a dry holiday party (holiday luncheons are often just as effective for team building), consider providing drink tickets so as to prevent intoxication in the “workplace.” It is your responsibility to ensure that employees get home safely and stay safe while at the party. The court awards for permitting employees to leave the party drunk and then having a disabling accident are immense.

While you might be tempted to throw a soiree that is far from stereotypical, take into consideration that gatherings this year may end up more subdued than ever. Employees have been at home for a long time, and employers may find that even their social skills have atrophied during the pandemic. Celebrating the end of the year (and the start of 2023) is a great idea, as long as employers are not too quick to dismiss the lasting impacts of this pandemic.

Howard Levitt is senior partner of Levitt Sheikh, employment and labour lawyers with offices in Toronto and Hamilton. He practices employment law in eight provinces. He is the author of six books including the Law of Dismissal in Canada. Muneeza Sheikh is a partner at Levitt Sheikh.

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