How to avoid a legal hangover from your office Halloween party

Business, Rights, Safety, Tips & how-to

The holiday season is approaching quickly, giving us all at least one night to don our favorite holiday costume and gallivant about the town. If your workplace hosts an annual soiree to honor All Hallow’s Eve, you may be looking forward to dusting off your favorite costume, letting loose, and dancing the night away.

The mixture of fantasy getups, reduced inhibitions, and one too many dips in the witch’s brew results in staff members finding themselves the victims of unwanted advances and sexual harassment.

Tips for employers

If you’re an employer preparing for this year’s festivities, keep the following tips in mind to ensure workers have fun without crossing any legal lines.

Tip #1: Employers can be just as liable as the harasser in certain scenarios, and a savvy boss should consider implementing a preventative office party strategy. This could involve republishing the company policy, sending reminder emails before the event, or charging certain staff members with the task of monitoring employee behavior during the party.

Tip #2: Harassment is a subjective standard, and it generally does not matter what the harasser meant or intended by a certain comment or joke. In other words, whether certain conduct is considered harassing in nature is usually left to the receiver, not the perpetrator, and if the victim feels uncomfortable with certain conduct, a sexual harassment claim could follow.

Tip #3: Alcohol and reduced inhibitions go hand in hand. A wise employer should implement certain safety checks with the party’s bar staff to ensure that attendees are not over-imbibing. A host of other liability issues surround alcohol service at company functions, so an employer should always seek legal advice and check the company’s insurance policy before wheeling in the kegs.

Tip #4: An employer is required to take sexual harassment allegations seriously. If an employee reports harassing behavior, follow-up measures must ensue. If your company has a harassment complaint procedure, you must follow it even if the misconduct occurred outside work hours. If no such procedure exists, it behooves you to work with a legal advisor to get a written, consistent harassment policy in place.

Tips for employees

Sexual harassment is unlawful in any scenario, even if it occurs after work hours or off-site. If you believe you are the victim of sexual harassment, you may wish to report to your supervisor or superior first, but you do not have to.

If you are worried about political backlash, you may wish to skip reporting internally in favor of launching a full complaint with your state’s labor or civil rights agency. In many states, there is an easy-to-follow complaint process for reporting sexual harassment. Reported incidents are then investigated by authorities.

On the federal level, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is tasked with handling instances of discrimination or sexual harassment, and you must launch a complaint there at least 180 days before initiating a formal federal lawsuit, should you choose to take that route.

Keep in mind, state and federal laws prohibit your employer from retaliating against you for pursuing your rights about sex-based discrimination, so if you face adverse workplace treatment as a result of your decision to come forward, you may then pursue a separate and distinct cause of action under state or federal anti-retaliation statutes.