As we are in the midst of the holiday season, it is a good time for employers to review their policies and take preventative measures to ensure festivities do not get out of hand at office holiday parties. The dangers of blurring the lines between professional conduct and holiday celebrations was demonstrated in a recent case out of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California.
The lawsuit alleges that following an office holiday party, a managerial employee invited several co-workers to a second location to continue celebrating. It further alleges that toward the end of the night, the manager and one of his reports ended up alone in the hotel room and the manager sexually assaulted her.
This resulted in a sex discrimination and harassment lawsuit brought by the EEOC against a northern California retailer, EEOC v. Elite Wireless Group, Inc. The case is a timely reminder that even offsite functions, such as holiday parties, can spin out of control in unforeseen ways that lead to potential employer liability. Accordingly, employers should consider what they can do before, during, and after holiday parties to help prevent issues before they arise, and effectively address them if they do.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Training: Conduct regular and robust sexual harassment training, and remind employees that the same expectation of a respectful workplace that applies in the office also applies at offsite office parties. Note that sexual harassment training may be required depending on where your employees work. In California, for example, employers must provide 2 hours of sexual harassment training to supervisors. And effective 2021, employers with 5+ employees must provide at least 1 hour of sexual harassment training to non-supervisors.
- Alcohol: There are pros and cons to an evening event with alcohol vs a daytime event without it. If serving alcohol, consider using drink tickets or reducing the time that alcohol is served to limit consumption. Also consider covering the cost of transportation home.
- Social Media: Remind employees not to post photos or videos of co-workers without their consent to help mitigate privacy concerns and media that could reflect poorly on the company.
- Set the Example: If management employees attend the party, have them set the example for appropriate behavior.