By Erin Dougherty Foley

Seyfarth Synopsis:  This blog considers sexual harassment allegations in the context of the holiday party. To date, no one seems immune from the allegations: celebrities, politicians, presidents. See for instance Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2017 issue. We hope this dialogue will empower employees and employers, alike, to speak up before inappropriate, but previously unmentioned conduct, festers.  This conversation also creates an opportunity for a company to look hard at its corporate culture and how it can strive to make it welcoming and inclusive.  

Here we will consider how to avoid some of the landmines that can accompany holiday parties. ’Tis the Season: Perhaps more than any other time, lawyers and laypeople alike are talking about sexual harassment.  Indeed, the country continues to review important national conversations about such abuses of power and is trying to come to terms with what the “me too” allegations say about our workplaces and our values. 

We hope this conversation, the national headlines, social media campaigns, and watercooler conversations, shine a light on genuine misconduct that should be addressed.  But with the holiday season — and the holiday party season — upon us, this adds an extra layer of anxiety to the already wide range of “what could possibly go wrong” scenarios.  But Holiday parties provide an important opportunity to build comradery, give thanks, show appreciation for your employees’ hard work throughout the year, and recognize past achievements. We don’t think you should scuttle these good intentions, but we do think a little advance planning can ease the process.  So, this week, we’re decking the halls with some blogs from the Ghost of Holiday Party’s past (such as Don’t Let Too Much Eggnog Ruin Your Office Holiday Party: Tips to Limit Employer Liability at Company Parties and Don’t Be Scrooged: Wage & Hour Tips To Help Employers Avoid Holiday Party Humbug) , in which our colleagues have sagely opined on how to spread holiday cheer without getting run over by a reindeer (or a charge of harassment).

Party Planning Tips to Consider:

  • Prior to the party, circulate a memo (or an email to all employees) reiterating your company’s policy against sexual and other forms of harassment.
  • Remind employees in that communication that the policy applies to their conduct at company parties and other social events, and they should act in a professional manner at all times.
  • Make attendance at the holiday party entirely voluntary and convey that message to employees with unwavering clarity.
  • Set a tone of moderation by reminding employees of the company’s policy against the abuse of alcohol and zero tolerance with respect to the possession, use, or sale of illegal drugs.
  • Consider limiting the amount of alcohol served and/or stop serving well before the party ends (and have lots of non-alcoholic alternatives).-
  • Have plenty of food, (and curb the concern that someone may be drinking on an empty stomach).
  • No mistletoe, no scantily clad elves, and no “bad Santa” (for all the obvious reasons)!
  • Remind managers to set a professional example, and designate several managers to be on the lookout for anyone who appears to be impaired or intoxicated.
  • Anticipate the need for alternative transportation and don’t allow employees who have been drinking heavily to drive home.

Post-Party Wrap-Up: Of course, if post-party concerns are raised, they should be addressed promptly (investigated if necessary), and, where applicable, dealt with consistent with other incidents of inappropriate conduct.  Remember, just because something happened “off campus” does not make it “off limits” from the Company’s standpoint.  Ensuring that your employees know you are going to respond to any allegation of misconduct sends a powerful message.

Once you’ve gotten past the holidays, and as you face 2024 with a clear head and renewed hope for the new year, it’s a good time to start thinking about whether your company needs to change its ways (like Scrooge after meeting the Ghost of Christmas Future) or to improve its employee communications (like Walter the Dad in Elf) or to be more inclusive (like Santa stopping at the Island of MisFit Toys).  And while making such changes can be challenging, think of the good that can come from them.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team or the Labor & Employment Team.