Forgive me for being the unfun adult here, but as holiday season is just around the corner, we are overdue for a reminder of the dos and don’ts for our upcoming office holiday parties. Company holiday parties are notorious in our line of work for being the occasion of awkward exchanges, uncomfortable interactions, sexual harassment, and even sexual assault. As an employment attorney who regularly litigates workplace sexual harassment and assault claims, below are my top suggestions to ensure your party is above-board this year.
A Note on the Law
There are various laws and regulations that could apply to conduct at an office holiday party. Usually, HR and risk management will have a solid familiarity with these. Nonetheless, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Employers can be liable for harassment that occurs off site. Employers may be responsible for any activity that takes place at company-sponsored events, whether on or off site. At times, a company may even be liable for conduct taking place after a company event or party.
- Many employment insurance policies will not cover willful misconduct or sexual assault. Insurance providers see no benefit in increasing their exposure for businesses that fail to prevent harassment of which they are aware or at which sexual assault has taken place.
- The Illinois Gender Violence Act (IL GVA) is a powerful tool. This state law allows an employee to sue an employer for sexual assault or gender-based violence. In fact, it is easier to bring a cause of action under the IL GVA than, for instance, under Title VII, the federal law relating to employment discrimination and harassment. Moreover, the IL GVA allows for a cause of action against the individual who did the assault, not simply the employer.
Six Proactive Steps Employers Should Take before the Event
With those legal realities in mind, there are several measures you can take to avoid liability. You can do this proactively, even before the party date.
- As we previously advised, recirculate the company’s policies against harassment and misconduct. Share these with all employees and contractors invited to the holiday party, and remind them of the discipline they could be subject to if they are found to have violated the policies.
- Remind the same list of attendees of how they can complain. Your organization should have a clear process in place so that workers who have endured harassment or other misconduct can file a complaint. This can be something as simple as shooting an email to an HR representative or using an anonymous reporting website or software.
- Designate contact points for complaints. In addition to your regular procedures for making complaints, consider asking certain trusted people from your company to serve as contact people at the party or in the days after to be available to receive complaints. If you go this route, clearly communicate to employees who these people are before the party.
- Make a second, clear communication to management. Advise your managers that this is not a wedding and that they should be on their best behavior. Let them know that supervisory staff will be held to a higher standard of conduct because liability risk is higher if they engage in misconduct.
- Be careful with alcohol. Providing an open bar can be a recipe for disaster, so schedule your event with caution. Then again, a very restrictive bar can also be problematic: I’ve heard of a large tech company advise employees that they could only have two drinks at a party, which led a significant percentage of attendees to pre-game and show up intoxicated to the party.
- Consider having everyone invite a +1. Encourage guests to invite their significant others, as people are less likely to be handsy or misbehave when their guest is watching. You could also consider having a family-friendly party or a daytime event.
Four Proactive Steps Employers Should Take at and after the Event
In addition to getting in front of issues well ahead of your party, you can also ensure a smooth event by taking certain precautions during the event and following it.
- Cut off an open bar before the party ends. An early cut-off allows people time to sober up and wind down. Extra points if you make water freely available!
- Skip the DJ. Without music, people will be less likely to dance and engage in any questionable physical behavior. Again, your company party isn’t a wedding.
- Investigate any and all complaints. Complaints do not have to be formal or written to constitute a complaint. Even if someone just mentions feeling uncomfortable in passing, it’s worth a conversation to ensure it won’t eventually grow into a bigger issue.
- Discipline violators, even if they are in the C-suite. If anyone has violated the policy, discipline them in a reasonable manner, even if they are in the C-suite or a rainmaker. You establish consistency with your policies and show that they actually matter to you.
These steps are a simple template for a healthy—and maybe even fun—holiday party. Taking certain precautions will enable your employees to enjoy each other’s company, instead of dreading seeing each other at work come Monday. Happy holidays!
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