Lipsky Lowe LLP discusses how to prevent sexual harassment at office holiday parties.

Preventing Harassment at Office Holiday Parties

By Douglas Lipsky

With the holiday season upon us, many companies will be hosting year-end parties, happy hours, and other events for their staff. While such activities typically happen after hours, it is crucial to remember that employees are still on the clock at seasonal gatherings, and the rules of conduct regarding discrimination and harassment during the workday apply to company-sponsored events as well. Ultimately, if you experience sexual harassment at a holiday party, it takes a skilled employment lawyer to enforce your rights. 

Sexual Harassment at Holiday Parties

Any employee who engages in sexual harassment at a holiday party is subject to discipline just as if the misconduct had occurred in the office, provided that the employer has the right policies in place. Under the recent revisions to the New State Human Rights Law, however, employers with established anti-harassment policies can still be held liable because the amended human rights law eliminates certain affirmative defenses. 

Sexual harassment at a holiday party may involve:

  • Pressuring a coworker to drink alcohol
  • Excessive drinking with a subordinate to test his/her “mettle” 
  • Party games that require attendees to physically touch
  • Exchanging sexually suggestive or romantic gifts 
  • Making an unwanted sexual advance or touching
  • Sexual comments

Let’s say a supervisor has too much to drink before dinner and promises you a promotion in exchange for sex, this may be considered quid pro quo (or this for that) harassment. Similarly, anyone that tells lewd jokes at a holiday event may be responsible for creating a hostile work environment (even after hours); an isolated incident may not rise to the level of sexual harassment, however. On the other hand, offensive comments or conduct that begin at work and continue at a holiday party may indicate a pattern of unlawful harassment.

Why Holiday Parties Lead to Sexual Harassment Claims

Although holiday parties are designed to reward employees and foster camaraderie, these events can go awry, especially if alcohol is served and people “drop their guards,” so to speak. These informal settings lend themselves to employees losing their bearings and engaging in inappropriate comments and conduct whether intentionally or not. 

When sexual harassment occurs at the holiday party, liability may depend on the employee’s status (e.g. supervisory, non-supervisory). In any event, holding offenders and employers accountable requires having highly skilled legal representation by an experienced sexual harassment attorney.

The Takeaway

When sexual harassment at a holiday party occurs, employers and employees alike should speak with an employment lawyer. Depending on the circumstances, a trustworthy attorney can defend an employer against unfounded workplace harassment claims, or help an aggrieved employee enforce his or her rights. In the end, the acting responsibly at holiday parties will keep the season happy and healthy for everyone.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.