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St. Patrick’s Day: When shamrocks meet employment law

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Last year, St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Sunday; and the year before, on a Saturday. In other words, for the past two years, St. Patrick’s Day has been well-timed from a reveller’s perspective.

This year, most Canadians (apart from our friends in Newfoundland & Labrador, who enjoy March 17 as a statutory holiday) will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on a work-day. In that regard, the intersection of certain St. Patrick’s Day traditions with the workplace can present challenges for employers and employees alike. Consider, for example, the following issues and recommendations:

1. Wardrobe and Décor

It is customary to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day; and although that tradition can be tastefully honoured by way of emerald-toned shirts, dresses and other “normal” work-wear, sartorial expression on March 17 is often taken to far more garish heights. Coming from much Irish ancestry and speaking as a devoted adherent to St. Patrick’s Day traditions myself, I own at least 2 shamrock ties, a shillelagh, green socks, and an assortment of St. Patrick’s Day hats. . . and it was with considerable disappointment that I admitted to myself that most of those accouterments would have no place in my business meetings today.

Each workplace is different, expected levels of formality can vary greatly, and many employers do indeed exercise considerable good humour and flexibility in relation to employees’ St. Patrick’s Day garb and desk decoration. That said, the dress code on St. Patrick’s Day remains at the employer’s discretion, as it does throughout the rest of the year; and employers are under no obligation to indulge employees who show up for work dressed for a parade rather than a work-day.

Recommendations for employees: if you’re looking at yourself in the mirror on the morning of March 17 (perhaps through shamrock-shaped glasses) and you’re wondering if you’ve gone overboard, you probably have. Think carefully about the nature of your job, the tone and image of your workplace, the expectations of your employer – and mix that with a good dose of common sense.
Recommendations for employers: Unless you have a formalized dress code or other directive in place that sets specific expectations for St. Patrick’s Day in advance, approach the day with reasonable flexibility. But if an employee has clearly shown bad judgment in his or her attire, don’t feel like a killjoy for insisting that he or she change out of, for example, a leprechaun hat, green wig, and/or “Kiss Me, I’m Irish!” t-shirt, before greeting the company’s customers.

2. Alcohol

Green beer, Guinness, Irish whisky and other refreshments have long been staples of St. Patrick’s Day revelry; however, it is well-established that alcohol and the workplace can be a dangerous mix. Although it is an employer’s prerogative to organize St. Patrick’s Day festivities (on or off-site) for staff and/or clients, it is critical that such events be properly planned with a view to managing risk and liability. In that regard, alcohol can all too easily become a lightning rod for raucous and inappropriate workplace conduct (which might include incidents of sexual harassment), for injury, and for impaired driving — all of which can lead to tragic consequences and legal liability for an employer.

Given the potential risks and liabilities, employers are not expected to grant (and employees should not expect to receive) any special dispensation for the unsanctioned consumption of personal alcohol at the workplace, over the lunch-hour or otherwise during the working day. Similarly, St. Patrick’s Day provides no excuse for an employee to be under the influence of alcohol in the workplace and/or during his or her shift, regardless of whether the alcohol was consumed elsewhere and/or “off the clock.”

Recommendations for employees: St. Patrick’s Day isn’t an invitation to go to work “tipsy”, to have an extra (or any) drink at lunch, or to over-imbibe at a company-sponsored function – and don’t expect your employer to have any sense of humour about your crossing any of those lines. Such behaviour can and should attract disciplinary consequences.
Recommendations for employers: An employee under the influence of alcohol presents the same risks on St. Patrick’s Day as on any other working day — which can include risks to him or herself, to co-workers, to other drivers on the road, and to the public in general; and all of those risks can translate into legal liability and reputational harm for the employer. Accordingly, employers are well-advised to ensure that St. Patrick’s Day is “just another ordinary day” for the purposes of their usual rules and protocols regarding employees consuming and/or being under the influence of alcohol at the workplace and/or during the working day.

In the event that an employer organizes St. Patrick’s Day festivities, any such event should be well-planned and well-supervised, held in a properly licensed venue, and be tended by properly trained bar servers. Moreover, a protocol for properly and safely exiting intoxicated and/or disorderly guests should be established in advance, and the employer should ensure that taxi service or other arrangements are in place to get people home after the event. Especially on St. Patrick’s Day – when bars and restaurants are busier than usual, and taxi-cabs are in greater demand – such details should not be left to chance.

3. Absenteeism

I can safely predict that (a) many bars across Canada will be full by mid-afternoon on St. Patrick’s Day, and (b) many employees will either call in sick or arrive late for work the next day. And I can also predict that (a) many of those mid-afternoon bar-goers will be AWOL (“absent without leave”) from their workplaces, and (b) many of those who will be late to (or absent from) their desks the next day won’t have booked the time off in advance.

Although St. Patrick’s Day may be the explanation for all of that, it does not excuse it. An employer who pays an employee to work on March 17 (and/or March 18) is entitled to expect full value for wages paid; and an employee who is scheduled to work on either of those dates is obliged to put in his or her hours.

Recommendations for Employees: Whether it is St. Patrick’s Day or not, an unauthorized disappearance from the workplace in the middle of the afternoon is unprofessional, and qualifies as misconduct. Moreover, calling in sick after “over-celebrating” on March 17 looks unprofessional and can be embarrassing. Accordingly, if you plan on partying through the afternoon of March 17 and/or you anticipate a need for recuperation the next day, be sure you’ve booked the time off in advance.
Recommendations for Employers: As noted above, except in Newfoundland & Labrador, St. Patrick’s Day isn’t a statutory holiday in Canada, and employers are under no obligation to treat it as such. Accordingly, it is entirely an employer’s prerogative to decide how much leniency (if any) will factor into the application of its attendance and absenteeism policies on March 17 and 18.

Ultimately, the keys to a Happy St. Patrick’s Day for employees and employers alike are common sense, good judgment, and good humour. No additional blarney required.

Wishing a safe and Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all!

Slainte, agus beannachtam na Feile Padraig!

Jason Beeho