Annual Holiday Party? Tra-La-La-La-Lawsuit!

“Tis the season for office holiday parties, and for a quick reminder to employers about them.  Here, we reissue our earlier blog on the topic of preventing sexual harassment at those festivities.

Office holiday parties are a time for employees to relax, let loose, knock back a few cold ones, and connect with colleagues on an informal, more personal level, right?   Well, yes and no.

You may have heard stories of sexually inappropriate behavior at annual office holiday gatherings at other organizations.  Why?  Because some people mistakenly believe that when they shed their business suit for the office holiday party, they also shed their obligation to abide by the organization’s professional rules.   But workplace policies, particularly those prohibiting sexual and other forms of unlawful harassment, apply to organization-sponsored events including the annual holiday office party.

Managers and staff must remain professional in attitude, personal appearance and behavior and show the same respect and professionalism to colleagues at events outside of the physical workplace as they do within it.   Managers should be particularly mindful about not commenting on a subordinate’s body or physical attractiveness, or making comments or jokes of a sexual nature (as should co-workers).  In addition, being inebriated does not ever excuse a supervisor, co-worker, or non-employee such as a Board member or donor, from engaging in conduct that might be perceived as unwelcome sexually inappropriate behavior.

An employer’s legal obligation to protect its employees from unlawful conduct continues during these events.  What is intended to be a fun time can easily derail into a lawsuit for an organization that has not laid clear ground rules, and can result in the firing of an employee who does not abide by workplace rules prohibiting sexual harassment.

Aside from the legal risks, organizations that fail to prevent sexual harassment may face damage to their reputation, mission, employee morale, and worker productivity.

The following actions may help your organization minimize the risk of this kind of trouble:

  • Set rules around office events, including expectations for supervisors in interacting with subordinates and co-worker interactions generally.
  • Decide whether alcohol will be served and if so, provide reminders that employees should drink responsibly. Determine how much alcohol will be served and whether a ticket maximum should be used, how long the party will last, whether the party should be held at the office during office hours, and whether employee family members should be invited to minimize inappropriate behavior.
  • Re-circulate the sexual harassment and retaliation prevention policies shortly before the annual holiday party and have employees sign an annual acknowledgement of receipt of the policies.
  • Conduct annual sexual harassment and retaliation-prevention training shortly before the office holiday event.

A number of jurisdictions like New York require employers to issue sexual harassment policies and complaint forms, and to conduct annual sexual harassment prevention training.

For additional measures to prevent workplace sexual harassment, listen to my interview on Tony Martignetti Nonprofit Radio Sexual Harassment in Nonprofits 

Enjoy the holidays!

Lisa M. Brauner is the head of the Employment Law Practice at Perlman & Perlman.  She advises employers on how to reduce litigation risk and resolve employee issues. She offers training in preventing workplace discrimination, harassment, retaliation and on other workplace law-related topics. Contact her at  lisa@nullperlmanandperlman.com; 212-889-0575.

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