HR Management & Compliance

Sexual Harassment Challenge—Here Comes the Holiday Party

Sexual harassment is dominating the headlines, and here comes the holiday party. It’s hard to imagine that in the current climate you’ll encounter harassment at your party, but past experience suggests you should be prepared. Parties are intended to be relaxed, fun events; unfortunately, relaxation and fun, when accompanied by alcohol, often lead to inappropriate behavior.

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Remember that harassment is looked at from the viewpoint of the victim. The intent of the harasser is not at issue—the important factor is whether the conduct was welcome or unwelcome.

Furthermore, a victim may appear to be putting up with the behavior, but can still easily launch a complaint, perhaps saying, “Of course, I put up with it; I need this job to feed my children.”

And if there is some negative action is taken against the employee at a later date, welcome can turn to unwelcome in the form of a retaliation suit.

So, what can HR managers do to lessen the likelihood of unfortunate incidents?

Know the rules. As a first step, you can be sure that employees are reminded of the rules governing behavior in the workplace, including dress codes and other employee conduct policies, such as discrimination and harassment. Add a reminder that all rules apply to the gathering.

Monitors. Assign some managers to be on the lookout for potential trouble spots or infractions of the rules.

Spouses. Invite spouses and significant others—that may curb some employees urges.

Mistletoe. Don’t hang the mistletoe—that’s begging for a harassment claim.

Don’t wait. Avoid taking the stance, “I wasn’t really sure if they had crossed the line into illegal harassment.” Remember that generally, long before actions become illegal, they are inappropriate. Take action when you see a problem developing.

Alcohol and How to Reduce Its Effects

There’s no question that alcohol consumption fuels the harassment fires. For some, normal inhibitions fade, and poor judgment reigns. There are approaches that can lessen the impact.

  • Go without. Obviously, the easy way to control alcohol consumption is to go alcohol-free. Reports suggest that more and more organizations are considering this, especially this year, but it may not work for many employers.
  • Professional bartender. Hire a professional bartender, and authorize the bartender to refuse to serve anyone who appears to be intoxicated. Also require that the bartender should card younger drinkers. Don’t make employees or supervisors serve drinks.
  • Limit consumption. The next level would be to limit consumption. Approaches include:
  • Limiting the number of drinks—usually by giving each attendee two drink tickets.
  • Cutting off bar service after a predetermined time.
  • Offering a cash bar, or switching to a cash bar after employees have had, for example, two drinks.
  • Wine and beer only. Serve only beer and wine for alcoholic drinks.
  • Have a variety of nonalcoholic drinks available.
  • Serve a meal, or offer heavy hors d’oeuvres.
  • Offer some kind of entertainment so that drinking isn’t the major focus of the gathering.

Since, in spite of your efforts, some attendees may become intoxicated, have taxis or a limo service standing by. In addition to preventing driving accidents, you protect the company from liability.

Other things to consider:

  • Make the party a lunch, or have the party focused on an activity (such as bowling) to reduce the amount of alcohol likely to be consumed.
  • Hold parties off business premises.
  • Schedule the party on a weeknight when employees presumably are less likely to overindulge.

HR Daily Advisor® readers offered the following suggestions commenting on an earlier article:

  • We host an indoor holiday “picnic” for our employees and their families. The focus is on games and the kids, and people seem to have a good time.
  • We issue people two tickets at the start of the party good for two drinks–we instruct our bartenders not to pour too strong. After that, it’s a cash bar. People’s alcohol consumption seems to drop way down when they’re paying for it instead of us! That, and I have a few trusted managers circulate during the party to monitor whether anyone’s had too much. In addition to the fears about drunk driving, we don’t want anyone being groped or harassed.
  • We stop serving booze about 2 hours before the end of the party but continue serving food. We also make sure to have the number of a cab company handy in case people aren’t able to drive home (which, thankfully, doesn’t happen too much, but better safe than sorry).
  • At our holiday party, we have just a 1-hour cocktail hour at the beginning of the evening and then switch to soft drinks. People grumble a little bit, but we’ve been doing this for years, and we’ve never had an alcohol-related incident.

Final Tips

Should there be a report or complaint about harassment, be sure to conduct a prompt investigation, and take appropriate action. Check the company’s general liability insurance policy to see what your coverage is for on- and off-premises social gatherings.

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