Spotlight on: Holiday etiquette – Surviving the holiday party

  • December 11, 2015

Note: This article originally appeared in CBA National Magazine. It has been abridged for use in CBA News.

By Gloria Song

Office holiday parties are a great opportunity for lawyers to get acquainted with their colleagues outside of the office setting in a more relaxed and fun environment.

The trick is figuring out how to have a party that is memorable and enjoyable without having your behavior become the hot topic at the water cooler the next morning.

You’re at the office — not a club

Generally, business attire is appropriate, unless the event is described as “black tie optional” or otherwise in the invitation. Kristin Taylor, a partner with an employment and labour practice at Fraser Milner Casgrain, notes that this is not the occasion to debut a sparkly new cocktail dress. “To be treated professionally, it is important that professional appearance is maintained, and the office party is no exception to this,” she says.

Lee Akazaki, a litigation partner at Gilbertson Davis Emerson LLP and past president of the Ontario Bar Association, offers useful tips for male lawyers regarding neckties. “As the holiday reception season starts, dress in dark business suits,” he advises. “Get your shirt laundered and pressed professionally — don’t do it yourself. If you have an outgoing personality, choose a necktie that is more muted so you don’t overwhelm people. If you are shy, choose one that catches the eye. Both men and women will comment on your tie, and that is a great icebreaker.”

What to avoid

The most obvious rule: avoid drinking too much. The latest edition of the Emily Post etiquette guide suggests a one-drink rule. “There is a lot of peer pressure to drink, but don’t give into it,” warns Akazaki. “Have a light meal before a reception, so it doesn’t go straight to your head.”

Taylor adds a few other activities to avoid. “Dancing and karaoke may be fun, but should never be done by the lawyers at office parties,” she says. “Developing a reputation as the dancing queen or the party animal will not assist in making you a trusted adviser, even if it seems like fun at the time.”

It’s important to avoid gossiping, airing dirty laundry, or revealing confidential work information.

But try to enjoy yourself

“Firms often spend a significant amount of money on these parties to thank everyone for their hard work throughout the year. They want you to enjoy yourself, so have fun — just not too much!” says Kimberley Bonnar, manager of experiential education and career development at Osgoode Hall Law School.

The taxman is watching

What is taxable and what is not when it comes to office parties and gifts? What is considered an employee benefit?

As a general rule, the value of any benefit received or enjoyed by a person in the course of employment is to be considered income under the federal Income Tax Act, with certain exceptions. A gift from an employer to an employee is considered such a benefit, according to the Canada Revenue Agency’s Interpretation Bulletin IT-470R “Employees’ Fringe Benefits” (April 8, 1988), which outlines Revenue Canada’s position on income tax law. However, if the gift commemorating Christmas or another similar occasion is under $100, and the employer does not claim its cost as an expense in computing taxable income, the gift does not have to be reported as part of the employee’s income, says the Interpretation Bulletin. This can only be done once a year.

According to the Interpretation Bulletin, a party or other social event provided by the employer that is generally available to all employees will be accepted as a non-taxable privilege, but only if the cost per employee is reasonable in the circumstances. As a guideline, events costing up to $100 per person will be considered non-taxable, although ancillary costs such as transportation home can be seen to increase the amount.

Gloria Song is a lawyer-researcher and writer.