With the holiday season upon us and more offices reopening, holiday parties may also be in the offing. So it is important to remember that sexual harassment is illegal, whether it occurs in the workplace or at a holiday party. The best way for employers and employees to understand their rights and obligations at company-sponsored events is to consult with an experienced employment lawyer.
Defining Sexual Harassment
The first thing to know is that sexual harassment is considered an unlawful form of sex-based discrimination under federal and state law. Also, workplace harassment can occur in a number of ways. For example, a supervisor who makes unwanted sexual advances or demands in exchange for an employment benefit (e.g. job offer, raise, promotion) may be guilty of “quid pro quo” harassment. Similarly, unwelcome comments or conduct by anyone in the workplace, including a supervisor, co-worker, or customer, can create a hostile work environment.
At the same time, sexual harassment can occur outside of work, particularly at holiday parties where people are likely to be drinking alcohol, dancing, or just trying to “loosen up.” Examples of sexual harassment at holiday parties include:
- Inappropriate jokes
- Sexual advances
- Unlawful touching
- Sexist comments
- Giving sexually suggestive gifts
Because anti-harassment laws apply to offensive conduct that occurs at company-sponsored events, an employer can be held liable for sexual harassment if occurs at a holiday party.
Why Sexual Harassment Occurs at Holiday Parties
Holiday parties and other employer-sponsored events usually take place away from the office in informal settings. The holidays are a festive time and bringing people back together after being apart during the pandemic should help to foster camaraderie. But lack of a formal office setting — and reacclimating to being with others — may cause some to relax their inhibitions and exercise poor judgment. Adding alcohol to the mix can easily open the door to offensive conduct and comments.
For example, a supervisor who has too much to drink and makes sexual advances may have committed quid pro quo harassment while a coworker who makes offensive comments (e.g. “you look hot in that dress”) can create a hostile work environment. Although a single, offhand remark may not be actionable, a pattern of conduct that starts in the workplace and continues at a holiday party may constitute sexual harassment.
Who is responsible for sexual harassment at a holiday party?
Depending on the status of the offending employee, an employer may be held liable for sexual harassment at a holiday party. In particular, an employer can be held strictly liable for harassment by a supervisor, even if the employer was not aware of the offensive conduct. However, an employer may only be liable for harassment by a non-supervisory at a holiday party if the employer knew, or reasonably should have known about it.
The holidays can and should be the most wonderful time of the year. When it comes to holiday office parties, bring good cheer but remember the workplace extends beyond the office. And if you are subjected to sexual harassment, whether at work or at a company-sponsored event, talk to an employment lawyer.