Sexual Harassment at Office Holiday Parties

The holiday season, typically measured from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, offers an opportunity for co-workers to relax and have some fun together. Unfortunately, office holiday parties occasionally present an increased risk of sexual harassment, with the presence of alcohol and a generally “festive” atmosphere leading co-workers and superiors to behave inappropriately.

A recent press release in PRNewswire from a New York City corporate security consultant offers tips for employers to avoid problems with sexual misconduct at holiday parties and other office gatherings. While the advice is geared towards employers, it offers a good guide for employees to know their rights and protect themselves in what should be a happy season.

1. The consultant first recommends mandatory training for all staff regarding the definition of “sexually inappropriate behavior” and policies and procedures for employees who experience or witness such behavior. Such training should occur close to the holiday season.

Even without training, employees should always enforce their own comfort zones. No amount of behavior deemed inappropriate by the employee should be acceptable. Employees should know their company’s procedure for reporting misconduct and should do so immediately if it occurs.

2. The consultant next recommends that employers should advise their employees to drink responsibly, and that senior people at the company (i.e. “bosses”) should lead by example at events.

Employees are not in a position to control the drinking of their superiors or even their co-workers, but they can moderate their own. It should go without saying that an employee’s alcohol consumption in no way justifies inappropriate conduct by another, but more than a few people still fail to realize this. If a senior person in the company is acting as the responsible party at an event, an employee should report someone’s excessive alcohol use to that person if it constitutes a danger to others.

3. Companies should invite employees’ spouses and significant others to holiday events if budgeting permits, says the consultant. Their presence apparently tends to deter inappropriate behavior.

Of course, not every employee has a spouse or significant other, and it is highly inappropriate for an employer to even ask about an employee’s relationship status. If an employee feels uncomfortable in a situation at an event, that employee should by all means seek out others for support or simply to discourage bad behavior.

4. Companies should put a senior employee in charge of keeping an eye on the event, monitoring behavior and alcohol use, and assisting the bartender in cutting off excessive alcohol consumption.

Employees should be sure to know who has been designated as the responsible person and should use that person as a resource if a situation develops. If an incident of harassment or misconduct occurs, it is ideal to have someone immediately available, so that the victim of the harassment can immediately begin whatever reporting process the company uses.

5. If complaints of harassment or abuse do come about, the consultant advises companies to bring in an outside expert right away to advise on the company’s obligations. This also has the effect, reportedly, of alleviating the concerns of employees and other stakeholders.

This could be an effective tool to help an employee who is the victim of harassment or abuse. It could also be a way for an employer to sweep a matter under the rug. The key is for an employee to make the complaint or report as required by company policy and to follow up to see that the company acts on it. If the company refuses to act, the New York City Commission on Human Rights and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission receive complaints and make determinations as to whether an employee may proceed to a lawsuit.

The New York sexual harassment lawyers at Phillips & Associates represent victims of workplace sexual harassment and fight to protect their rights. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

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