Office holiday parties and harassment: 4 tips to avoid problems

Company holiday parties and alcohol can be a recipe for a really bad post-holiday hangover of a lawsuit. And with heightened attention to workplace harassment and inappropriateness, employment lawyers recommend companies exert some control over office party festivities this season.

The issue is not to be a Grinch at a time of year that’s an opportunity to toast accomplishments and look forward to the New year’s opportunities. Instead, it’s to make sure the fun doesn’t become harassment.

Jonathan Segal at the Society for Human Resource Management said holiday party watchfulness begins with one word: Drinking.

“We see an awful lot of cases where alcohol is involved,” said Segal. “You can avoid a lot of problems by limiting the amount of alcohol and increasing the amount of food.”

Beyond that, Segal said it’s important to watch what’s going on at the party, and take action the moment lines get crossed.

“If you see someone grinding on the dance floor, that’s the moment to step in,” he said. “Keep your eyes and ears open. See it, hear it, stop it.”

On the SHRM website, Segal’s blog post offers the following four key tips:

Remind Employees of Your Anti-Harassment Policy

Sometimes employees forget that your policy prohibiting harassing behavior applies to social events. You need to remind them.

Consider providing specific examples. Make clear that alcohol is not a defense to unacceptable conduct.

Limit the Amount of Alcohol

We all know that alcohol reduces what slim inhibitions may exist for those with a propensity toward bad behavior.

Limit the amount of alcohol that you serve. Serve plenty of non-alcoholic beverages and food, too. Flag aggressively. Etc.

Limiting alcohol consumption not only reduces harassment risks, but also the safety risk of an employee driving while under the influence.

Watch for Unacceptable Conduct and Respond “In the Moment”

Even with a remainder of what is and is not acceptable behavior and limiting alcohol, anticipate that someone will act inappropriately.

Designate certain managers to listen carefully and observe closely for problematic behavior. Watch for wondering hands and employees dancing too close, for example. Ideally, a manger can nip problematic behavior in the bud before it rises to the level of no return.

Take Corrective Action

Where an employee acts inappropriately at a holiday party by engaging in harassing behavior, even if not unlawful, there must be consequences. The EEOC has said the corrective action must be prompt and proportionate.

Sometimes a warning will be enough. Other times, because of position, pattern and/or conduct, termination may be necessary. Yes, “it depends.”

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