Lessons from Selling Sunset, Part One: Work Parties

August 29, 2022

Previously printed in The Lawyer’s Daily, a LexisNexis Canada publication.

Before we launch into our three-part series on employment law lessons learned from watching Netflix’s Selling Sunset, we note that there are spoilers ahead, so proceed accordingly.

Selling Sunset

We are busy and serious lawyers, but make time to indulge in our favourite reality TV programs. Selling Sunset became a fast favourite, with its vibrant characters, million-dollar views and drama.

For those who are not yet familiar with the show, Selling Sunset follows some of L.A.’s most successful women realtors who all work under the same roof at the number one agency in the Hollywood Hills and the Sunset Strip. They work hard and play harder, as they compete with the cutthroat L.A. market and each other (thanks IMDb!).

As it happens, trashy TV makes for excellent employment law lessons. That is important, because it gives Mike an excuse to watch the show and record time as marketing non billable hours. Katelin needs no excuse.

Work Parties: Takeaways

Many episodes of Selling Sunset include a work party, often in the context of an open house. Guests at these parties include the Selling Sunset team, potential buyers and realtors and brokers from other organizations. Work parties on Selling Sunset are elaborate affairs, filled with opulence and alcohol. Inevitably, the realtors indulge in a cocktail or two and tension bubbles over, sometimes into a very tearful and very public argument.

When we considered the more dramatic work parties featured on Selling Sunset, we couldn’t help but turn the mirror back on ourselves. It is no secret that alcohol is a feature of many social events in the legal profession. Nor is it a secret that unhealthy substance use and mental health concerns are over-represented amongst lawyers and law students. Alcohol is included in many lawyers’ celebrations and at many law firm events.

Selling Sunset spells out some of the more obvious potential pitfalls of work parties where attendees are intoxicated, most explicitly the visible unprofessionalism and damaged working relationships between colleagues. For example, in season five, episode four, there is a doozy of an argument between Christine (of course it’s Christine) and the rest of the realtors at an open house. During the argument, parties on both sides plead for professionalism, which is giggle-worthy in light of all the other failures of professionalism prevalent throughout the series.

What is not clear from watching Selling Sunset are the legal obligations or risks associated with having a work party where attendees are intoxicated. This area of the law is written in shades of grey — it’s cliché, but “it depends.” Different types of liability may apply when an employer is hosting an event where alcohol is served. For more information on liability see Hunt v. Sutton Group Incentive Realty Inc. [2002] O.J. No. 3109, Childs v. Desormeaux 2006 SCC 18, and applicable occupiers’ liability legislation.

Law firms and other employers do not need to exclude alcoholic beverages from their events, but should consider the risks of work parties where alcohol is served or where events could get out of hand. In the interest of time (Selling Sunset won’t watch itself), we highlight three considerations for employers planning work parties:

1. Safety:

An employer has a duty to provide a safe workplace, which includes work functions like parties. Consider whether in fulfilment of this duty an employer should provide an adequate amount of non-alcoholic beverages, free transportation to get employees home safe, or devise strategies for monitoring the attendees’ consumption of alcoholic beverages to ensure no one is over served.

2. Discipline:

Employees who engage in misconduct at a work party can be disciplined for their bad behaviour, even when that work party occurs after hours or outside the typical work environment. Expectations, including any relevant policies, can be communicated in advance. Employers should be mindful of applicable human rights issues.

3. Resources:

Lastly, since we are discussing alcohol, resources such as employee assistance programs and lawyers assistance programs may be available and can be accessed if and as needed.

Stay tuned for our future articles in this series.

All five seasons of Selling Sunset can be streamed on Netflix.

While every effort has been made to ensure accuracy in this article, you are urged to seek specific advice on matters of concern and not to rely solely on what is contained herein.  The article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.