It’s Not Just About Sex: Other Types of Harassment at New York City Office Holiday Parties Are Also Unlawful

The holiday season means many different things to people: family, friends, food, a general sense of merriment, and so on. It also means that many employers will host holiday parties for their employees, managers, executives, and perhaps clients and customers. The “office holiday party” has a reputation, largely thanks to movies and television, as an unabashedly wild event free from customary rules and restrictions. It is our duty as New York City employment attorneys to remind everyone that the rules still apply, however wild the party might be. Harassment on the basis of any protected category is unlawful. We believe that holiday parties should be fun for everybody, meaning that the fun should never come at anyone’s expense.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, and national origin. Other federal statutes prohibit age and disability discrimination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has determined that this includes harassment of any employee based on these factors, whether it comes from someone in a supervisory position or not. An employer may be liable in either situation if they are aware of the harassment and fail to make reasonable efforts to address it. The New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) protects a much broader range of categories than Title VII, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

The EEOC has stated that isolated incidents, unless they are particularly severe, do not constitute violations of Title VII or other statutes. This generally applies to violations of the NYCHRL as well. Multiple acts of harassment become a violation of antidiscrimination law when they create a hostile work environment, or otherwise interfere with an employee’s ability to do their jobs.

Office holiday parties may seem like they are not part of the workplace, perhaps because they often occur away from the employer’s usual place of business, outside of regular work hours, and with alcohol. Despite such appearances, laws like the NYCHRL still apply. Employers should remind employees, managers, executives, and others that the rules remain in effect. If an employer is aware of any likely “troublemakers,” they should take reasonable steps, such as a seating plan if the event involves a meal, to prepare for any problems. Employees should be aware of how to report harassment and other unlawful acts, and employers should make this system readily available.

The holiday season is built around several religious traditions and holidays, but it has also taken on a distinctly secular character. The extent to which the holiday season is primarily secular or religious is the subject of an ongoing debate in this country. For the purpose of employment law, an employer could run afoul of the law before the holiday party even begins, by focusing on one religious aspect of the holidays in ways that directly infringe on employees of one or more different faiths.

At the holiday party itself, unlawful harassment can take a variety of forms, but often involves inappropriate comments or jokes, ethnic or racial slurs, and similar behavior. Employees should be able to opt out of activities that make them uncomfortable, and they should not be required to explain or justify opting out. Party themes should not be overtly offensive to particular racial, ethnic, or national groups.

Phillips & Associates’ team of experienced and knowledgeable employment attorneys advocates for the rights of New York City employees, helping their assert claims for unlawful workplace practices like discrimination and harassment. Please contact us today at (212) 248-7431 or online to schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case.

More Blog Posts:

It’s Holiday Party Time in New York City, So Let’s Talk About Sexual Harassment, New York Employment Attorney Blog, November 27, 2018

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

Workplace Sexual Harassment and the Holidays – 4 Tips to Remember, New York Employment Attorney Blog, December 6, 2012

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