Workplace Sexual Harassment and the Holidays – 4 Tips to Remember

Holiday parties are often a chance for co-workers to have fun together in a relaxed environment, but employees and employers alike should take care that the antics do not get out of hand. The “office holiday party” has become a pop culture phenomenon, with tales of drunken debauchery that sound more like something one would find on a college campus. The environment of a holiday party can lend itself to inappropriate comments, flirtations, or contact, as alcohol and a festive spirit may cause people to say or do more than they should. Employees who find themselves in such a situation have all the same rights against harassment that they have in the office, and it is important to know how to assert those rights.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York recently issued a ruling in Shiner v. State University of New York, University at Buffalo that relates to harassment at office holiday parties. The plaintiff worked as a clerk at the University of Buffalo Dental School. After uncomfortable experiences with two school administrators at office holiday parties in 2008 and 2009, including alleged sexually inappropriate and explicit remarks, she stated to her supervisor that she did not want to attend the 2010 party. She ultimately attended the party, where one of the administrators allegedly sexually assaulted her while the other administrator encouraged him. She sued the university for violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The court denied the university’s motion to dismiss in November 2012.

Here are several tips to help employees at all levels of a company avoid inappropriate behavior at office events, as well as tips to help employees preserve their rights if something does happen:

1. A Holiday Party is Still a Work Function. The simplest rule for everyone at an office holiday party is that, no matter where you are or what you are doing, you are at a work event.

2. Your Supervisor is Still Your Supervisor. You are at an event with your co-workers, supervisors, and perhaps subordinates, and the relationships you have with them during the workday still apply at the holiday party. No one has a right to speak to you or treat you in any way that they could not do during business hours.

3. Even If Your Employer Does Not Have a Policy for Holiday Party Harassment, Act As Though It Does. Employers should have policies or guidelines for dealing with holiday party harassment. If they do not, and someone behaves inappropriately towards you, take steps to document the behavior. Report it to a supervisor in person if possible, or create some other record, like a voicemail or email.

4. Watch the Drinking, and Bring a Spouse or Significant Other If You Can. Managers, supervisors, and others in leadership positions in a company have a duty to behave appropriately at all times, and to enforce standards of behavior among others in the company. In a perfect world, it should not matter whether an employee was drinking alcohol, or whether someone brought a spouse or significant other along to keep the party reasonably tame. Since we do not live in that perfect world, employees should keep an eye on their surroundings in case things do get out of control.

The lawyers at Phillips & Associates represent victims of workplace sexual harassment and discrimination in New York City and surrounding areas, fighting to protect their rights at the municipal, state, and federal levels. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

More Blog Posts:

New York Fashion Models Form Rights Group to Fight Sexual Harassment, New York Employment Attorney Blog, February 7, 2012
Waiter Sues Manhattan Resaurant for Sexual Harassment, Claims Celebrity Chef Did Nothing to Protect Employees, New York Employment Attorney Blog, January 10, 2012
Sexual Harassment at Office Holiday Parties, New York Employment Attorney Blog, December 20, 2011

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