In our last article, we discussed a few of the things employers could be held responsible for when their employes behave badly at a company party. We also listed a few things employers can do to minimize the risk, such as limiting the amount of alcohol and providing transportation. But one of the biggest hazards of the holiday season is harassment. (Prefer video? See our YouTube playlist Minimizing Risk at Company Parties.)
Alcohol + casual mingling often equals lower inhibitions, and things can easily go wrong. You, the employer, could be held responsible for the bad actions of one of your employees. So what can you do to prevent and handle harassment claims this holiday season?
First of all, keep in mind that harassment can come in many forms. The usual scenario you have in mind is a male employee getting drunk and making an inappropriate sexual comment to a female employee, but remember that harassment can come from any gender to any gender. It may be in the form of comments, but it could also be unwanted touching; even a touching as simple as unwanted hugs. Holiday parties may also be a time when clients and employees come together, so you also need to keep an eye out for clients making inappropriate passes at employees, which could put your employees in a very uncomfortable position. And also, don’t forget that this is a time filled with many different religious holidays — harassment can be about religious affiliation, as well. The employer could be held responsible for all of these situations if they don’t take appropriate action.
How do we try to avoid these scenarios? First things first: try to limit the likelihood that someone gets too drunk in the first place. Check out our last article for more tips about that.
Aside that, what else can you do to prevent harassment claims?
Before your party:
- Make sure you have a handbook, and that it includes written policies about harassment and discrimination. These policies should include descriptions of what harassment is, how to report it, and what the procedure is for investigating a claim. It is a good idea to have a lawyer draft these policies for you, to ensure that they are tailored to your business and the local laws that apply.
- Remind your employees what the policies are, and that they’ll be held to normal work standards at the event, including the standards of conduct and dress.
- Avoid situations that might encourage bad behavior, like hanging up mistletoe.
- Read our other article for other methods of limiting alcohol consumption and discouraging bad behavior.
But what happens if you take all the precautions and someone still shows up to work on Monday with a harassment claim?
After the party:
- If someone reports harassment, take the claim seriously.
- Take immediate action.
- Conduct a thorough, but discreet, investigation, according to the policies in your handbook.
- Enforce consequences, if consequences are appropriate.
- Make sure your consequences don’t accidentally punish the person who reported the claim. This could be grounds for a retaliation lawsuit.
- Have a lawyer help, if you need one.
The only lawsuit you really can win is the lawsuit that you avoid. If you take the precautions above, take all harassment claims seriously, and consult with a good lawyer in your state who can support you, you will help protect yourself from being held responsible for your employees’ actions.
Want to make sure your employee handbooks are up to snuff? Have questions about handling harassment complaints? Contact us. We’re here for you– a lawyer when you need one.