Office parties provide fantastic team-building opportunities, networking, and boosting company morale. Unfortunately, they are also a time when alcohol, combined with a casual atmosphere, can result in interactions straying, intentionally or unintentionally, into the area of sexual harassment.
If COVID has not discouraged you from having an in-person office holiday party this year, here are some things you should consider to keep holiday party sexual harassment from occurring.
Remind people of their responsibility
As the party draws near, inform employees of your company’s policy regarding sexual harassment via official communication. Carefully consider including language in the message that defines sexual harassment policy, indicates your firm has a zero-tolerance standard, and encourages employees to report any incidents should they occur.
The US Code of Federal Regulations states that an employer “should take all steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring, such as affirmatively raising the subject, expressing strong disapproval, developing appropriate sanctions, informing employees of their right to raise and how to raise the issue of harassment… and developing methods to sensitize all concerned.”
A policy in an employee handbook or initial hiring papers is not enough. People must be regularly reminded and trained on its content. The weeks leading up to a holiday party might be a good time for some refresher training.
Consider limiting the guest list
As an employer, your responsibility to prevent sexual harassment does not begin and end with inappropriate conducted by team members. When harassment occurs at an event you organize, the responsibility can fall on you and your firm, even if the perpetrator is not an employee.
If you plan to invite customers or vendors to a holiday party or to allow staff to bring a “plus one,” keep in mind that you are responsible for those guests’ behavior should it stray into sexual harassment.
Choose a safe venue
Hosting an offsite party or banquet does not remove or mitigate these responsibilities. If the company organizes the event and the harassment happens between coworkers, the company can still be held responsible.
An open, well-lit space where security cameras are evident might not set the hyper-relaxed mood you had in mind for a holiday party. Still, it will likely discourage questionable activity significantly. In addition, you can make the event safer for everyone by encouraging supervisors to mingle and interact, keeping their eyes open for anything that could become a problem. Supervisors, especially, need to use caution and refrain from becoming inebriated.
Encourage responsible drinking
It is not unusual for companies to serve alcohol at holiday parties. It is also not uncommon for alcohol to lead to behavior that could be considered sexual harassment. Responsible drinking should be a part of the plan to discourage sexual harassment.
Consider hiring a professional bartender for the party and empowering them to refuse alcohol to those who seem to have had too much to drink. You can also limit the number of drinks for everyone or try to restrict drinking by providing a cash bar vs. an open bar.
Follow up quickly on complaints
If an employee complains of sexual harassment, take it seriously. Your company’s systems may slow down during the holidays due to office closures or staff being on vacation. While some issues can be put off until the New Year, reports of sexual harassment cannot.
Generally, complaints of sexual harassment should be reported to a person’s manager or supervisor. However, if the manager or supervisor is responsible for the harassment, complaints may need to go directly to the Human Resources department. Whatever the case, it’s crucial that HR documents and investigates every incident
Make it fun for everyone
While it is essential to communicate that certain behaviors will not be tolerated at your holiday party, this need not create an atmosphere of fear or dampen the fun. Encourage responsible behavior rather than just discouraging the irresponsible.
Instead of focusing on inappropriate dress, encourage fun and festive style. Having an Ugly Christmas Sweater Contest with big prizes can eliminate or reduce the chances of inappropriate comments or advances. Instead of focusing on how much drinking is too much, provide and highlight non-alcoholic holiday drinks that everyone can enjoy. Planning a few holiday games is a great way to encourage respectful, responsible, and fun interaction.
There are a lot of risks associated with having a holiday party, but there are also many ways that it can benefit your company’s culture and morale as you head into the new year. To make it work, plan correctly and do everything you can to mitigate the risks.