Holiday Work Parties: Just Forego the Mistletoe

The holiday season is the best time of year to recognize and thank employees for their dedication and hard work.  However, this year’s barrage of sexual harassment headlines may have some nervous employers contemplating going all Grinch on their staff and canceling the festivities.  What happens if the combination of party buzz, mistletoe, and fancy dress turns into post-holiday dread: lawyers, lawsuits, and sackings?   What steps can you take to protect your employees and reduce legal risk from an incident of unwanted or unlawful sexual conduct or harassment?

How Does the Law Define Sexual Harassment?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that explicitly or implicitly affect an individual’s employment, unreasonable interferes with an individual’s work performance; or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”  Men, who are often too embarrassed to report workplace sexual harassment, are also protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because of a 1998 ruling from the United States Supreme Court.  You should know that same-sex harassment is also illegal.

What doesn’t constitute sexual harassment?  Innocuous compliments such as “You look very festive tonight,” a mutually-shared hug or a consensual relationship, are not deemed sexual harassment under the law.  However, a good rule of thumb is to develop a company culture that encourages mutual respect, professional language, and behavior in every way.


Steps to Reduce Holiday Risk

Take some time to evaluate your corporate culture, any history of unlawful conduct, and verify that you have clearly written organizational policies. Check that employees have periodic training on workplace conduct, including discrimination, diversity, and sexual harassment.  Problems with work parties in the past is a clear indicator that changes must be made. If you want to be 100% sure that your company doesn’t end up as a bad headline in the local paper, then treat your employees to one of these special on-site work hour events:

  • Host a holiday-themed lunch or potluck at the workplace to retain the professional atmosphere and avoid any alcohol-related incidents.  Dress it up (or down) by asking everyone to wear their favorite holiday sweater, scarf, or a sparkly accessory to spice up their work wardrobe.
  • Host an on-site, afternoon scavenger hunt and plant great prizes everywhere.  End with happy hour treats and mocktails.
  • One employer brings in a festive lunch while employees decide on which five favorite charities to support. A lively discussion comparing the different non-profits inspires generosity and informs about needy organizations in the community.  Other companies celebrate with a day of giving back instead of the traditional holiday party.  Collect food supplies or toys over a period of weeks, and then let employee teams head out to make the deliveries on the designated day.
  • Other traditional in-house ideas include decorating contests, Secret Santa (make sure you have a gift price limit), party games, Christmas movie trivia, and for small offices, the one we either love or hate: the white elephant gift exchange.

Each of these ideas invite celebration and reduce risks associated with off-site evening parties.  However, if your company enjoys the glamour and excitement of hosting the holiday party at an off-site venue, take note of these tips:

  • Organizations that hold off-site Christmas parties are legally required to protect their employees under EEOC rules, just as if the event were held on-site.  This means that employers should set the expectations in advance for dress, drinking, and professional behavior.
  • Specify in your party invitation whether dress is black-tie formal, professional evening wear, or classy casual, and let attendees know that there is a ticket limit for drinks if you are serving alcohol (generally two tickets maximum).  Dressing inappropriately or being drunk is no reason or excuse for unwanted sexual contact, but reducing temptations for poor behavior or unwelcome comments will help.  Have taxi or driver service numbers handy in case someone needs a lift home.
  • As the host set the tone by having a great time, but model professional behavior by avoiding a flirtatious manner, off-color jokes, or unprofessional language.  Your employees will follow the examples of leadership.

Finally, don’t let your company experience a ‘bah humbug!’ end of the year.  Whichever way you choose to celebrate the holiday season, ensure that all your employees, and especially your female employees, feel safe, respected, and free from the trauma of sexual harassment in the workplace.