Steps needed to keep holiday parties safe, free of harassment

Posted by Charles Middleton on 12/14/2018

Q: 'Tis the season for holiday office parties. As an employment defense attorney, does that set off warning bells for you?

A: It certainly does, and it should do the same for employers. A work party can be a great way to socialize, take a break from the daily grind and let down the proverbial hair, but the infusion of alcohol and a more relaxed setting also all too often results in bad decisions by employees. These bad decisions can lead to liability for your company. In particular, holiday work parties can be a breeding ground for sexual harassment claims. As illustrated by lawsuits centered on holiday parties gone wild, the consumption of alcohol and the general merriment of the season tends to destroy the boundaries of our inhibitions that usually keep everyone in line. 

Q: So what is the answer to this problem? Should employers stop having office parties?

A: Before I get accused of being the Grinch that stole office holiday parties, I should say that office parties can and should still take place. Employers just need to take proactive steps to ensure the party atmosphere remains safe and free of discrimination and harassment. For example, if alcohol will be served at the office party, the use of drink tickets as a means of monitoring consumption is a good idea. So is providing intoxicated employees with access to use Uber, Lyft or traditional cabs to get home at the employer's expense. Finally, it's a good idea to have someone stationed at the exit of the party to check in with and assist exiting employees if there are any obvious signs of impairment. 

Q: Beyond issues of alcohol consumption, what else should employers look out for?

A: As employers prepare for this season of cheer, don't forget that even when a holiday party is taking place, the workplace is still right there, all around you. You can have fun, just don't forget to monitor the activities of your employees and curb any behavior that is out of line. Be sure to follow up and investigate any claims of harassment that are generated by a holiday party. Just because an inappropriate comment or salacious conduct takes place at the office holiday party does not mean the policies and procedures of the company do not apply. That message should be communicated to employees before the party takes place, and, for those who do not heed that warning, appropriate investigation and potential disciplinary action should await them.

PAULA BURKES, BUSINESS WRITER

Published The Oklahoman, December 14, 2018