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Sexual Harassment at Office Holiday Parties

Holiday or end-of-the-year parties can be a fun and exciting way to celebrate a successful year. It gives coworkers the chance to relax and enjoy each other’s company in a more relaxed setting. However, even though alcohol might be served, it does not give people the right or permission to mistreat each other.

The location may not be in the office, but a holiday party is still a work function, and everyone is still obligated to treat their colleagues as if they were still in the office. Although joking may be more prevalent, the idea is for everyone to have a good time, and that can be difficult if someone feels isolated or uncomfortable.

Those who experience sexual harassment at a holiday party may not know how to proceed. Even though it is a party, it is still a work event, meaning they can and should report any examples of sexual harassment that have occurred. If they are unsure or fearful on how to proceed, seeking the advice of an experienced sexual harassment lawyer can help determine how to handle the situation properly.

What Constitutes Sexual Harassment at a Party?

Sexual harassment at the office holiday party is any instance wherein one coworker makes unwanted physical contact with another colleague in a sexual manner. When people drink significant amounts of alcohol, their inhibitions drop, and they may say or do things they would not ordinarily do. This is not an excuse. It does not have to be limited to physical contact either. A person can say something inappropriate that is sexual in nature and makes a person feel uncomfortable.

Someone making inappropriate sexual comments to colleagues or trying to force themselves on coworkers can make people feel very uncomfortable and out of place. These actions might feel harmless at the time, but they can have a long-standing impact on those targeted by the inappropriate behavior. They might become uncomfortable around the person that made the comments in the office. It could make for an uncomfortable or hostile work environment in which that employee fails to be as productive as they were before.

There are a few obvious examples of sexual harassment at an office holiday party. Following are some examples:

  • A supervisor attempts to kiss an employee because they are standing under the mistletoe.
  • A coworker is telling sexually offensive jokes after being told to stop several times.
  • A manager continuously tries to get a person drunk and take them home.
  • The CEO tries to coax a coworker to go out on a date and threatens their job if they refuse.
  • Coworkers are sharing pornography on their phones and try to include those who are not interested.
  • A coworker grabs another from behind in an effort to force them to dance.
  • A person is sexually assaulted by a contractor in the bathroom who was hired to work the party.

There are some examples of sexual harassment that can occur at a work party. Those who are in management positions must be especially cognizant of their actions as well as the actions of their employees. It is their job to ensure that everyone feels safe and is able to have a good time.

What Should I Do When Facing Sexual Harassment at a Party?

It may feel awkward or confusing when an incident happens at a party. Those who have been sexually harassed may not know what recourse they have or if they have any at all. These employees can be assured the same procedures that are in place for sexual harassment at work are still applicable at a party. When dealing with a harasser, the first step should be to speak with the person who made the comment or took the action. Explain to them what they did wrong and how it made the coworker feel – this might defuse the situation at the onset.

The employee can then find a supervisor at the party to let them know what has happened. The supervisor can intervene to prevent the action from taking place again. It could be something as simple as speaking with the person who did the harassing, or more extreme by asking them to leave the party because they are making people feel uncomfortable.  It is the manager’s responsibility to take action in these situations. They might enact a temporary solution for the sake of the party and address the matter more thoroughly when everyone returns to the office.

If a manager fails to act in a meaningful way, there are options that an employee should take following a sexual harassment incident at a holiday party. Those steps include:

  • Stay calm. Although the situation might be troubling and emotional, the important thing is to stay calm and not overreact. Do not abruptly quit without first speaking with someone in authority at the company and/or an experienced sexual harassment lawyer. Quitting a job prematurely could have a negative impact on a lawsuit.
  • Speak to Human Resources. When the employee gets back into the office, the first thing they should do is file a formal complaint with the Human Resources (HR) department over the matter. This will provide the worker with a written proof that they filed a complaint, especially if the company fails to act. It is important to keep a copy of that complaint as well.
  • Gather evidence. At the time the incident took place, the employee should take note of who was there and what they may have witnessed. They should take meticulous notes about the circumstances that led to the incident, including how much alcohol was consumed and what prompted the actions.
  • Move quickly. There is a 300-day statute of limitations in Pennsylvania to file a case; in New Jersey, the statute of limitations is two years. It pays to not waste time when deciding to take action against a company.

If the company is not helpful, or the person who filed the complaint becomes the subject of retaliation, they should then take their case outside the company. They can file a federal case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). There are state agencies as well. If the business is in Pennsylvania, the person can file a case with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC); those in New Jersey can file a case with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights within the Office of the Attorney General.

Why Does Sexual Harassment Occur at Office Parties?

There are a number of factors that can contribute to an increase in sexual harassment at office parties. The primary culprit can be the presence of alcohol. When a person drinks an excessive amount, they do not think as clearly as they normally would, and might cross a line without knowing it.

Those who believe that they might act this way when drinking should be careful to curb their alcohol consumption, especially at a work function. Even if the person’s behavior does not become inappropriate, it may not be the best idea for coworkers to see their colleague overly intoxicated and have to work with them the next day.

Sexual harassing behavior may occur more at parties because people feel more relaxed and they let their guard down. That might invite others to believe a comment or action that would be otherwise inappropriate in the office would be tolerated at the party. All employees must remember a simple rule: if it is not appropriate for the office, it is not appropriate for the office party.

What can Employers Do to Handle Sexual Harassment at Parties?

Employers are responsible for the safety and well-being of their workers during all business functions in and out of the office. Given that alcohol is a predominant reason why many harassment episodes occur, it makes sense for an employer to monitor how much alcohol is being consumed and by whom. They could ban it altogether, although that may wind up being a more unpopular decision with the entire office.

Other steps employers can take to protect their employees and prevent potentially sexually harassing behavior from occurring include the following:

  • Consult the bartender. Bartenders will know how much alcohol they have served and if they have seen anyone in particular who may have had too much. The employer can tell the bartender to limit or cut certain people off.
  • Limit drinks. Although banning alcohol outright may not be popular, an employer could limit the number of free drinks they offer to employees or close the bar sporadically throughout the night to moderate the drinking overall.
  • Have a cash bar. Instead of offering an open bar, an employer can offer a cash bar instead. Given the cost of drinks, that might limit a person from drinking too much.
  • Disregard mistletoe. Although mistletoe can be a fun holiday tradition, it is not an appropriate decoration for an office setting.
  • Keep on patrol. Every so often, an employer should patrol and monitor quiet hallways and secluded areas to ensure nothing is going on behind the scenes.
  • Be vigilant. As an employer, one should consistently be watching their employees to see if anyone looks as if they are uncomfortable or not enjoying themselves for any reason and address the situation as quickly as possible.

Addressing employees ahead of a party and reminding them about how to act and what is permitted throughout the evening is a good way to minimize potential issues. It is also a good opportunity to remind people about their options should an incident occur. This should keep people mindful of their words and actions and make others feel safe.

Can I Sue for Sexual Harassment at an Office Party?

If an employee who suffered sexual harassment at an office party does not achieve any satisfactory results after filing a formal complaint with their employer, the pathway toward a lawsuit is clear once they file a complaint with the state. When an employee files a lawsuit against a company because of its lack of action, they can seek monetary and non-monetary rewards. Among the items they can seek to recover are:

  • Lost wages: The incident could have been so traumatic for the person that it forced them to quit, leading to a loss of income.
  • Medical expenses: The harassment could have led to ongoing mental or physical conditions that have to be treated. Those expenses can be included as part of a lawsuit.
  • Emotional distress: The ordeal of experiencing a coworker doing something inappropriate at a holiday party can be emotionally difficult. An employee can seek compensation for emotional distress.
  • Pain and suffering: As emotional trauma can come with harassment, so can pain and suffering. An employee can seek a lump sum to compensate for that.
  • Reinstatement: One potential consequence of filing a complaint is the employee could face retaliation from the company in the form of termination, lost hours, or unfavorable work projects. They can seek to have those privileges reinstated through a lawsuit. They could also seek their job back if they quit because of the harassment.
  • Non-monetary requests: The person can seek improvements with the company to ensure the incident does not happen again. It might mean guarantees about certain conduct at parties or tighter restrictions around those parties.

Philadelphia Sexual Harassment Lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. Reminds Companies That Office Parties are No Excuse to Harass Employees

Perhaps you were at an office party when you were suddenly accosted by a colleague who may have had too much to drink. They may have touched you inappropriately or made a comment that made you feel uncomfortable. The Philadelphia sexual harassment lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. can help you remedy this situation. Our experienced lawyers will get you the justice you are seeking. Call us today at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Our offices are located in Philadelphia and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout South Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, including Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, and Montgomery County, as well as in New York.

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