HR Learner in Development

The Holiday Office Party: A Warning

Posted on: December 12, 2011

It’s December again, and the return of the holiday office party is on a comeback.  This is often a time for colleagues to mix and mingle, and potentially unwind with a little assistance of alcohol.  While these festivities help us all to celebrate another year of hopefully successful business, tread lightly.  Office parties are rife with openings for sexual harassment.

The EEOC (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) defines sexual harassment as “…unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature”.  Legal precedent has warned us that office parties, even those after work hours and extensions of these parties by subsets of co-workers, can be viewed as an extension of the workplace.  Therefore, it is the responsibility of the employer to deter this potential behavior as much as possible.

While it would be easy just to suggest no alcohol to be served at these functions,  it would be unrealistic.  There are many in my own office environment who would barely bother going to the party unless alcohol was being served.  So let’s just assume that removing the alcohol from the situation is unlikely.  Continuing in that vein, removing the stupidity of over consumption must be mitigated as early as possible.

Step one actually begins before the party.  Make sure your employees are all aware of the company’s harassment policy.  Now may be a good time to provide harassment prevention training; if not to all employees, to your  managers and those who would have to manage the complaint proceedings.  Confirm that your policy is current and accessible to all employees.  Be sure to make clear to all that office parties are not exempt from following the policies provided by your company.

So here’s a little dramatization of what could happen:

Tonya and Chris are acquaintances at work; they share the same floor and say good morning to each other every day. As the floor often does as a group, they celebrate each other’s birthdays with cake and coffee.  Outside of work, Tonya has a steady boyfriend, and Chris is single.  They both go to the holiday party and start to have a drink or two.  Tonya and Chris start dancing together, and both really enjoy it.  During one particular dance, Chris picks Tonya up in his arms and swings her.  At this point, Tonya starts to get a little uncomfortable.  She starts to worry about Chris’ intentions, especially since she is in a committed relationship herself.  She decides to sit the next couple dances out, and mulls around with some of her other co-workers.  As the night approaches a close, Chris offers to take Tonya home.  She politely declines and goes home on her own.

There is nothing in this scene that was particularly harassment.  However, Tonya could have convinced herself that Chris is in love with her and now dreads even walking past him at work, as she usually does.  Any glance or touch that follows this initial event is going to have Tonya on guard.  The discomfort that she feels may lead her to take action, and bring it to the attention of her supervisor.  Whether Chris was intentionally making advances or not is no different.  The fact that advances are perceived-rationally or irrationally- is.  And the discomfort that Tonya feels, if pervasive, may be sufficient grounds for a sexual harassment suit.

Office parties can open this door to litigation.  It may be one solitary event that creates grounds for filing a claim, or it could be little moments that build into an undeniable trend.  I repeat, tread lightly.  These events are most likely going to be benign, but they do have a potential of bringing out the worst in people.

Step two can actually be done at the party, and that is to literally police the event.  If you notice an individual or a group becoming noticeably rowdy, try to step in, and remind them, again that this is a work function, and an extension of their professional selves.  Individuals are expected to act professionally.

While it may be impossible to prevent every incident of harassment, employers will make it through these cases with their integrity in tact if they can prove they did everything they could to prevent them and if they do as their policy suggests.

I reiterate a similar sentiment from earlier posts – if you don’t have a harassment policy, get one.  Get one now.

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