Holiday parties are the time when many employees “let their hair down,” have a few drinks and interact in a way that they wouldn’t normally in the office. Do the rules that govern behavior during normal office hours apply when employees are off the clock? What about a party off-site at a neutral location, such as a hotel or restaurant? There’s a common misconception that if the behavior doesn’t happen in the workplace or during business hours, it isn’t harassment.
While the behavior might have occurred after hours or off-site, the alleged victim may return to work feeling as if there is now a hostile work environment, as defined under harassment law. A hostile environment is created any time an individual feels intimidated or uncomfortable enough that it interferes with their job performance. Take, for example, Susie whose manager had a few too many at the company holiday party and tried to kiss Susie as they walked to their cars together. The next day Susie returned to work but is uncomfortable around her manager. She is worried he’s going to corner her about what happened, or worse yet, make another pass at her. She’s also concerned that her co-workers may have seen what happened and assumed she was “trying to get ahead,” so she’s feeling like everyone is looking at her differently. All this is making Susie uncomfortable and it is extremely difficult for her to concentrate on her work. If the situation were to get really bad, it could be considered hostile work environment harassment – all stemming from a little fun at a holiday party.
As you celebrate this holiday season, keep in mind Sexual Harassment law:
- Behavior that occurs off-site or after-hours can be considered in a harassment case;
- Harassment is determined through the eyes of the alleged victim;
- It’s the impact a behavior has and not the intent that is considered in harassment; so although you may not have intended to offend someone, if they were offended, it could be considered harassment.
Have fun, but be respectful and safe!