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Colleagues at a holiday partyIt’s the most wonderful time of the year, when everyone is bustling around preparing for the holidays and yet, they still get to find time to attend the obligatory office holiday party. The holiday party has evolved over the years from the blow out, open bar event to more subdued gatherings. Some employers now opt for employee only soirees without spouses or significant others. Others issue “drink tickets” in an attempt to limit the amount of alcohol consumed.

Even still, we have all heard a tale or two of the poor unfortunate soul who has a little too much to drink at the holiday party and finds themselves in an embarrassing situation. For some, this may be a version of Elaine’s holiday office party dance on Seinfeld, but for others it may be something more serious. One need only look to today’s headlines to find examples of where these events may go if individuals throw caution, good judgment and common courtesy to the wind.

What is key for all those who attend holiday office parties to remember is that your employer’s policies and procedures concerning harassment and sexual harassment in particular apply at company sponsored events and to non-employees. In fact, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act provides employers may be held liable for harassment by non-employees in certain situations. Accordingly, even if the harasser is not your co-worker, your employer likely still has an obligation to take immediate and appropriate corrective action to stop the conduct.

Examples of inappropriate conduct can include conduct that is visual, verbal and physical. It may be a flirtatious comment about one’s appearance, an expression of a sexual desire/fantasy, or an inappropriate touching. In more egregious cases it may involve someone exposing themselves or, worse, sexually assaulting a co-worker. It is also common in today’s electronic communication to see inappropriate text messages or photos.

Individuals who operate under the assumption that because they are “off the clock” or out of the office, they are free to engage in whatever conduct they choose do so at their own peril. It is not uncommon for complaints of sexual harassment to stem from employees behaving badly at holiday parties. This can sometimes lead to an unhappy new year with a formal investigation or possible termination of employment.

It is important for employees to understand they have the same ability to report inappropriate and unwelcome behavior that occurs at office events, or other work-related events, even if they are after hours, off-site or the alleged harasser is not an employee. If you or someone you know has been subjected to inappropriate behavior at the yearly holiday party or another company sponsored event, you should report the conduct immediately. Employers are required to conduct a prompt and impartial investigation into such complaints. Additionally, employees who report such conduct in good faith are protected from retaliation under both state and federal laws. If you have been subjected to inappropriate conduct and your employer has failed to take action, you should contact an experienced employment attorney immediately to discuss your rights.

Matt D’Abusco and Cynthia Sandoval, partners at Ares Law Group, P.C., with a combined 30 years of experience in employment law and litigation, have handled a multitude of sexual harassment cases.  Ares Law Group’s background and experience allows its attorneys to approach cases in a unique manner. Understanding how their adversaries view and defend cases, their strategic perspective is invaluable to clients.