Why do sexual harassment claims spike in January? Because the holiday office party is often seen as a “no fault zone” for improper behavior which leads to alcohol fueled incidents that injure both employees and companies.
“The corporate holiday party is a classic breeding ground for bad behavior that may cost a company time, money and valuable employees,” said Randall Gold, an attorney with a Wisconsin law firm, Fox & Fox, concentrating in sexual harassment and employment discrimination. “I have seen cases that came from employees thinking that anything goes because it’s the holiday season. It is critical that both employees and employers realize that the same rules governing harassment during normal business hours apply at the holiday party,” he adds.
In order to make the office holiday party a truly festive occasion without a morning after harassment headache, Gold offers this advice:
For employers, he recommends going into the party knowing clearly what constitutes improper activity and what does not, this may mean reviewing standard office procedures before the party. “According to Title VII even a single incident can be considered an actionable event,” said Gold. “This is heightened when actions are exacerbated with alcohol. Beware of touching, be sensitive about employee’s feelings and make sure to observe the same protocols you would have at the office,” he added.
In addition, he warned about interactions between employees and company clients that are in attendance at the party. “If a client makes inappropriate and unwarranted advances towards an employee your company may be liable in any impending suits, especially if that employee had been pressured to ‘take care’ of the client or ‘keep them happy’,” said Gold.
If questionable activities do take place at the party, Gold recommends that the victim report the incident immediately. “Follow standard office procedures and note and report the incident to HR immediately. If you have witnesses make sure that you confirm everything with them. Be as specific as possible,” said Gold.
Employees also have to be careful about how they treat spouses or guests of their co-workers. While an advance on a coworker’s guest does not constitute harassment, it is grounds for disciplinary action or even termination from your employer.
Monday morning is as important as the party, wared Gold. “There are a lot of instances where some innocent flirting at a party leads one person to believe the other is interested which could open the door to future harassment at the office,” he said. To avoid this he recommends being open and honest about what happened at the party and dispel any rumors to the contrary.
The number one rule here, according to Gold is that the same rules still apply. The last thing any employee or employer wants to find is coal in their stockings the morning after the party.
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