The holiday season, filled with office parties, regularly brings post-holiday workplace blues ranging from general embarrassment and workplace discomfort to harassment claims and more. In the current climate, this year is not likely to be any different. Smart employers still have time to get out ahead of this issue and prevent things from getting out of hand.

It is always the employer’s duty to provide a discrimination and harassment-free workplace, and this duty extends to work-related functions outside of the employer’s premises. Even if the event is held off-site and after work hours, employers remain liable for discrimination or harassment that occurs at the party since the party is an extension of the workplace. Many courts have found conduct at work-sponsored holiday parties, whether unwanted sexual advances or improper sexual jokes, touching or innuendo, can give rise to a hostile work environment sexual harassment claim.

Over the years, I’ve heard many tales from the office holiday parties, ranging from inappropriate dancing and touching to unwanted mistletoe kisses, unsolicited romantic suggestions, and gag gifts from the lingerie shop. One thing most have in common is embarrassing social media posts gone viral, workplace complaints and/or a court appearance. Employers who desire to minimize the risk should consider taking the following proactive measures to ensure that your holiday party is festive, fun and litigation free:

  • Set expectations. Remind all employees that your workplace rules regarding discrimination, harassment and professionalism apply at all work-sponsored events, and that they should act responsibly. Reinforce your zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior by emailing employees your policy before the gathering.
  • Change the schedule. Schedule the event as a lunch or brunch, or move the party to a weeknight, which might encourage employees to consume less alcohol.
  • Make it a family affair. Invite spouses and/or children, hoping that employees will drink less and mind their manners if their family members are present.
  • Keep it close to home. Host the party at your office location, which can have the impact of reminding employees they are still at work.
  • Appropriate decor. Do not hang mistletoe or have an employee dress as Santa Claus, which is likely to encourage lap-sitting.
  • Make it voluntary. Attendance at this, and any other non-work related social outing, should be voluntary and a failure to attend should not impact an employee’s standing at work.
  • Dress code. Remind employees of the appropriate dress code for the gathering to manage expectations.
  • Limit the bar. Do not provide unlimited free alcohol and consider using drink tickets, a cash-bar, serving only beer and wine, or having a dry party. Be sure to offer plenty of alternatives to alcohol and make sure the food choices will balance alcohol consumption.
  • Mind the music. Try to keep the event from becoming a dance party. Try festive music, instead of music likely to get employees on the dance floor. Avoid explicitly sexual lyrics altogether.
  • Supervisor on duty. Ask a supervisor to cut-off over-served employees and send those behaving badly home in a cab or with a designated driver.
  • Social media policies. Establish or update social media policies to manage expectations for posting from or about the party without management consent.

Most importantly, remember that if an incident of potential discrimination or harassment does occur at the party, it is to be treated in the same manner as any other incident, and you should conduct a prompt and thorough investigation into the allegations. If the results of the investigation warrant disciplinary action, make sure any action taken complies with your policies.

Have a happy, healthy and harassment free holiday season!

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