It’s Holiday Party Time in New York City, So Let’s Talk About Sexual Harassment

The holiday season is upon us, which means office holiday parties will be happening soon. Although the start of the #MeToo movement shortly before last year’s holiday season might have led to fewer—or at least less extravagant—holiday parties, the holiday season always seems to make some people think the usual rules do not apply. As New York City sexual harassment lawyers, please let us assure you that the rules do still apply. Here is Phillips & Associates’ guide to throwing a holiday party that everybody in the office can enjoy.

First, let us speak a bit about what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace—which includes office parties. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination under statutes like the New York City Human Rights Law in two general scenarios:

  1. Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when sexual activity, from “dirty talk” to actual sexual contact, is made a condition of employment. This usually involves a supervisor, manager, or executive making demands of an employee in a subordinate position. It can be an outright demand, e.g. “do this if you want a good shift schedule.” It can also be more subtle, such as when the circumstances indicate that rejecting a supervisor’s advances will be damaging to one’s job.
  2. A hostile work environment occurs when an employee is subjected to unwanted and pervasive sexual remarks, jokes, overtures, or advances, to the extent that it interferes with their ability to do their job. This type of sexual harassment can occur between co-workers of equal rank within a company, but then the employer is only liable if they knew about the harassment and failed to act. Many hostile work environment claims involve an ongoing pattern of offensive behavior by one or more individuals. A single incident can also support a hostile work environment claim if it is severe enough.

Whether a holiday party occurs at the office or at another location, such as a restaurant or club, it is an employment-related function. As we mentioned earlier, a common misconception holds that the usual rules do not apply at office holiday parties because they take place outside of work hours and/or away from the company’s usual place of business. This is not so.
The key to throwing an office holiday party without sexual harassment is to avoid activities or actions that lack consent or are likely to make people uncomfortable. Both types of sexual harassment discussed above could happen at a holiday party. An employee may experience a “hostile party environment,” or they may feel that they cannot decline to participate in an uncomfortable activity.

Examples of situations that could lead to a sexual harassment complaint include:
– Inappropriate comments about an employee’s attire or appearance;
– Sexually suggestive or otherwise inappropriate gifts;
– Unwelcome touching, particularly where mistletoe is involved; and
– Group games that frequently lead to uncomfortable situations.

Alcohol is frequently cited as a factor in holiday party sexual harassment, but restricting its availability is only one part of addressing this issue. Employers should be aware of any employee, manager, or executive who crosses any lines, and should promptly investigate any allegations during or after the party. They should make employees aware of their rights, and should facilitate reporting allegations to the HR department. A holiday party where everyone in the company feels welcome and safe is the best kind of holiday party.

Phillips & Associates’ sexual harassment attorneys advocate for New York City employees in claims for unlawful workplace practices under federal, state, and city law. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case, please contact us today at (212) 248-7431 or online.

More Blog Posts:

Sexual Harassment at Company Holiday Parties in New York, New York Employment Attorney Blog, December 5, 2017

Hotel Supervisor’s Alleged Sexual Advances at Company Holiday Party Lead to New York Harassment Lawsuit, New York Employment Attorney Blog, October 10, 2017

Laws Regarding Sexual Harassment Still Apply at New York Holiday Office Parties, New York Employment Attorney Blog, December 14, 2016

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