With the holiday season fast approaching, noted employment lawyer Mitchell Rait advises that companies should be aware of the increasing number of lawsuits alleging incidents of sexual harassment at holiday office parties.
Employees who are the victims of unwanted advances or other harassing behavior at a company’s holiday party may sue for sexual harassment because holiday parties are an extension of the workplace. Inappropriate behavior or offensive statements by co-workers or supervisors could form the basis of a complaint.
“Employees are generally less careful when it comes to their conduct at office social events compared to during regular working hours, particularly when alcohol is involved. As such, holiday parties can be a breeding ground for sexual harassment claims,” says Rait, an employment law specialist at the Budd Larner law firm in Short Hills, NJ.
Reported cases are replete with instances of sexual harassment at holiday office parties. This is especially true if part of a pre- or post-holiday pattern of inappropriate behavior. Moreover, a single outrageous act can itself constitute actionable sexual harassment.
Examples of inappropriate behavior at office parties may include:
- an intoxicated employee telling a female co-worker that he admires her body;
- employees pressing their bodies up against co-workers and touching co-workers;
- supervisors asking subordinates to dance and then making romantic propositions;
- risqué “gag gifts”
According to Rait, “Companies should approach the issue from a preventive viewpoint. After all, any “official” party environment is really an extension of the office. As such, employers have a legal duty to prevent harassment at holiday parties, just like they have a legal duty to prevent harassment in the office.”
This means the company must show that it tried to deter potential harassers from engaging in such conduct in the first place.
Tips for a Lawsuit-Free Office Party
As the holiday season approaches, companies can avoid sexual harassment claims:
- Re-publish the company’s sexual harassment policy before holiday parties take place.
- Remind employees that holiday festivities do not offer an excuse for violating policy.
- If a company does not have a written policy, this would be a good time to implement one.
Policy elements include:
Taking these steps can set a professional tone to the holiday party and help prevent harassing incidents.
- a statement of the employer’s commitment to a workplace free of unlawful harassment;
- a definition of the types of conduct that constitute harassment;
- a procedure for making complaints to designated persons within the organization;
- a procedure for investigating complaints of alleged harassment;
- a statement that a complainant will not be subjected to retaliation; and
- a statement that anyone found guilty of harassment after investigation will be subject to discipline, which may include discharge where appropriate.
- Re-publish the company’s dress code and/or code of conduct. Reported cases are replete with instances where the supposed victim of the harassment dressed provocatively or engaged in unprofessional behavior at an office holiday party. Unfortunately, the victim's conduct in this regard may encourage other employees to act unprofessionally, leading to sexually harassing incidents.
- Train managers about expected behavior guidelines and handling complaints. Many state laws hold employers automatically liable when supervisors engage in sexual harassment of subordinates. Supervisors should be reminded before a holiday party to set a professional example during the party. Supervisors should also be told not to invite co-workers out after the holiday party for small get-togethers at houses or local bars, since such “after parties” are frequently the occasion for harassing incidents.
- Keep an eye on alcohol consumption. Even though the law only prohibits “unwelcome” sexual advances, people often alter their view of welcomeness when the alcohol wears off. Consider limiting alcohol consumption, implementing procedures for policing consumption, serving plenty of food and cutting off alcohol service at some point during the party. Also, have a “dial-a-ride” or designated driver program.
Preventive measures cannot, of course, preclude all claims of sexual harassment. They may, however, deter lawsuits and insulate a company from liability. Finally, such measures can create a more productive and harmonious workforce.