Alcohol has long been a mainstay at the office social event, whether it is an in-house party or a dinner out. But the federal government’s decision to legalize cannabis — which came into effect this past October — added a new factor for Canadian organizations to consider when planning these social gatherings.
There is an expectation that marijuana’s prevalence will rise even as alcohol consumption has declined in the office. “Years ago, alcohol usage at parties was far more frequent than it is today. Companies have eliminated or minimized alcohol because of the potential liability,” says Jordan Rodney, president of Richmond Hill-based human resources consulting firm MaxPeople and founder of Rodney Employment Law. “Interestingly cannabis is going to follow a reverse process, I think employers are going to start off very narrow and restrictive, but as more information comes available … they might flex a little bit.”
He’s not the only one that expects usage to rise over time. Aileen Turnbull, V.P. of HR at Hamilton-based Verus Recruiting & HR Consultants, acknowledges the possibility that usage might go up as stigma around the drug decreases, but she isn’t expecting it to make too much of an initial splash. She attributes this to a lack of a provincial regulation, distribution channels and current laws prohibiting use in public spaces, like company-sponsored events.
“I don’t think it’s going to have this huge immediate effect where everybody’s going to run out and be high all the time,” says Turnbull. “I can’t see that happening, because people are pretty responsible.”
And even though parties are a time to relax, making sure they go well is still important. “It has been my experience that office parties are usually organized to reflect the culture of the organization,” says Adriana Scali, Principal Consultant of Markham-based human resources consulting firm, LINK HR. “The office holiday party is an opportune time to bring a company’s values to life.”
For Rodney, turnout at office events is an important barometer of larger trends in an organization’s morale.
“You can’t mandate people to come to a holiday party. I think there’s a strong correlation between levels of engagement and attendance at a holiday party,” he says. “It’s a real flag for us as HR professionals when organizations tell us that their social events are very poorly attended.”
“Recreational cannabis, definitely you would manage it the same as alcohol,” she says. “Just like how you can’t drink in the workplace, but at parties, there’s some tolerance to it.” – Aileen Turnbull
As for managing the substance, Turnbull thinks that in the case of recreational marijuana use at parties, it should be treated the same as alcohol. “Recreational cannabis, definitely you would manage it the same as alcohol,” she says. “Just like how you can’t drink in the workplace, but at parties there’s some tolerance to it.”
For her, that primarily means making sure staff have a safe way of getting home at night, whether that be arranging carpooling or offering taxi chits.
Aiding in this, she stresses, symptoms of cannabis impairment can be monitored and noticed the same ways drinking can. “It’s the red eyes, there’s a difference in character, personality can change, [and] there might be agitation. Those are kind of signs that somebody has been using [cannabis], so [it is] very similar to alcohol.”
Rodney expects the way cannabis will be treated is largely dependent on the nature of the business itself, with a “buttoned down” professional services firm probably differing from something like a marketing or advertising agency.
“So say you’re more progressive, you have millennials, a casual dress code, you may be more inclined to treat cannabis like the way that you’re treating alcohol,” he says. “Whereas an organization that’s a little more traditional, maybe has older leadership, they might have more restrictive policies that prohibit cannabis.”
But even with bans on the substance, Turnbull cautions those who want to use marijuana will find a way, if they haven’t already done so. She points to edibles as one possible avenue for circumventing restrictions.
“People are going to find a way to do it, so from an organizational point of view, make sure that they’re not getting behind the wheel of a car at the end of the night, because when you mix marijuana and alcohol there’s an exponential effect,” Turnbull says.
Rodney says marijuana carries with it the same risk of organizational liability as alcohol. “One of the key reasons why employers manage drink tickets at a company function where there used to be an open bar is they don’t want someone to get in a car and have a catastrophic injury. It’s the same principle with cannabis,” he says.
Ultimately, he notes that health and safety trumps everything else, and he emphasizes the fact that employers are within their rights to ban the substance outright at any company-related function.
Scali leans toward banning cannabis for similar reasons. “I am working with organizations that have taken the stance that although they may serve alcohol at office parties and functions, the consumption of cannabis will not be allowed, and I have to agree with this position, due to the liability involved.”
She points out the drug can be consumed in a variety of different ways, such as smoking, vaping and eating, thereby making it difficult to control the amount used in a similar fashion to alcohol. Scali also raises concerns regarding the interaction between alcohol and cannabis.
Health and safety trumps everything else … Employers are within their rights to ban the substance outright at any company related function.
As for the risk that employees might imbibe before arrival?
“I recommend that organizations clearly communicate their stance on cannabis prior to the holiday party … Employees should understand that company policies are still in effect at company events and that disciplinary action will apply for non-compliance,” she says.
Policy decision will rest in the hands of the individual employers. Rodney recommends that regardless of what choice is made, there should be some agreed-upon framework. “There are clients I work with that don’t want to have lots of policies because it’s too restrictive, but even the very flexible ones have to have a framework in place,” he says. “Maybe less prescriptive, but at least some general guidelines or principles governing your business.”