An Employers' Guide to the 2017 Company Holiday Party

It's Fun, Fun, Fun - Until It's Not!

We usually begin the joyful season of December by anticipating fun holiday parties and other seasonal festivities. This year, however, at company holiday parties around the country, it is likely that the sexual assault and/or harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, Al Franken, etc., etc., etc. will be at the forefront of the partiers' discussions over the food and drinks.

In the wake of the allegations against Weinstein and so many others, the "#MeToo" and "#MeTooMen movements have thrived; with many women and men who claim to be victims of sexual harassment sharing their experiences over social media. The victims' stories reveal both the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace, and an upsurge in victims coming forward after a long silence. As the spotlight is shined on sexual harassment, employers need to assess if their practices to proactively manage sexual harassment in the workplace and at the company holiday party can withstand the light.

The Company Holiday Party

There is little question that conduct that can be perceived as sexual harassment occurs at company holiday parties every year. Now is the time to consider what you should be doing before this year's holiday party in order to get ahead of this issue and minimize the risks, while still encouraging your employees to have fun during the holiday season.

One step you can take is to inform employees by memo or email before the party that, while everyone is encouraged to have fun, professional behavior is mandatory; perhaps even referencing the company's sexual harassment policy and complaint procedures and other relevant policies in the memo. Another is to take steps to reasonably limit alcohol consumption at the party, including, but not limited to, serving food at the party that will slow the absorption of alcohol. Alcohol often causes people to be more comfortable and unfiltered with their actions, which can lead to inappropriate sexual (and other) comments, and other embarrassing, harassing and potentially illegal behaviors.

You should also inform the managers and executives attending these events that they are expected to be setting a good example of professional behavior at the party. They also need to function as "watchdogs" and be on high alert for inappropriate behavior that may occur and to intervene to stop it. The sooner inappropriate behavior is reported, investigated, and dealt with, the less likely the company will face continuing legal exposure.

It's All About Management

The frequency of sexual harassment at the company holiday party and in the workplace can be lessened by employers taking proactive steps to prevent and address harassment. Having policies and practices in place and enforcing them makes a big difference. But it ultimately comes down to the leadership of the company. By recognizing the significance of harassment, company leaders can foster an environment that lessens the risk of it happening in the first place, and that encourages victims and others to come forward and promptly report harassment that they may have suffered or of which they are aware.

This is an important take away for employers from the Weinstein, Rose, Spacey, Lauer, Franken, etc., etc., etc. situations – victims don't always come forward right away. Employers can protect themselves from these latent claims of harassment to some degree by having a complaint procedure in place and ensuring that all employees are aware of the procedure. It is also very important to take complaints of harassment seriously and promptly investigate and address them.

The EEOC provides guidance to employers on the practices that will help reduce their liability and the occurrence of sexual harassment in the workplace and at holiday parties. The EEOC specifies that employers should take "reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any harassing behavior."[i] As an employer, consider the following questions:

  • Do you have a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment?
  • Do you have a policy that clearly describes how to report and address sexual harassment?
  • Are your supervisors and employees trained on the policy, reporting procedures, and how to address issues?
  • Can employees anonymously report complaints? Is confidentiality protected?
  • Are complaints properly investigated? Are there measures to respond to harassment if found?
  • Is offensive material, language, and conduct prohibited? Are any violations quickly addressed?
  • Is conduct monitored and sexual harassment prevention policies adhered to at after-hour events organized by the company?
  • And most importantly, do the executives of the company set a tone of respect and professionalism and personally adhere to the company's policies?
The Bottom Line – Enjoy the Holidays!

The best way to ensure that you and your employees enjoy the holidays and that everyone has fun at the company party is by planning ahead. If you did not answer "yes" to all of the questions above, now is the time to get those policies put in place and communicated to your employees. By being proactive and addressing harassing behavior before it occurs, you can help ensure that the holidays are happy for both your employees and the company! Happy Holidays!

Sources:
https://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/harassment.html#_ftn169

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