Sexual-harassment at holiday parties has been an issue for decades, but it is now receiving more attention, most likely due to the #MeToo movement. Still, it is something that employers need to be aware of because, regardless of where the holiday party is taking place because it is still connected to the workplace, incidents that occur at these holiday parties are open to sexual-harassment claims.
Holiday Parties, Regardless of Where They are Held, are Work Events
It is important to note that simply because a holiday party takes place off-site and/or after hours does not mean that Codes of Conduct, sexual harassment policies, and the law do not apply. Specifically, holiday parties and events occurring away from the office do not provide immunity. As a sponsor of the event, employers are vicariously liable for any incidents that may occur.
Alcohol, Mistletoe, Photos, and Driving Home
There are measures that employers can take to protect employees and attendees at these parties. For example, employers may choose not to serve alcohol, or have less alcohol available, via a drink ticket system or otherwise. Alcohol is a major part of the problem, as some holiday party attendees arguably drink more than they typically would because it is an open bar and free cocktail event.
Other actions can also prevent disasters, such as choosing not to hang mistletoe, avoiding dancing, hiring security or staff to keep an eye out for individual welfare, and making sure that staffers can invite spouses and family members. Increasing the amount of food that is available is also something that a number of employers are doing at these parties in order to ensure that everyone is well-fed.
Employees and attendees drinking and driving home is another serious liability concern. If attendees injure themselves or others while driving home from the party while impaired, there can be significant damages, and the courts have found employers responsible in some of these cases. Therefore, as an employer, if you are serving alcohol, you want to make sure that you rely on a venue that assumes responsibility for dispensing alcohol. Make sure that someone is responsible for monitoring consumption and ensuring no one is driving home and if they are able to do so safely.
New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD)
Just as NJLAD applies during normal work hours, it also applies to work environments for employees at all other times, including during holiday parties. Under the law, employers have a responsibility to prevent a discriminatory or otherwise hostile work environment. This means that even a casual party conversation that takes a turn into something else could support a claim of harassment or discrimination against a supervisor or employer.
It is also important to note that additional activities that may seem harmless to an employer or boss can lead to serious harassment claims. For example, certain photographs taken at these parties could lead to claims of privacy violations and even harassment claims. This also holds true of “jokes” that might be made at these parties by supervisors and others that could be deemed inappropriate.
Contact Our New Jersey Employment Law and Sexual Harassment Attorneys
Employers are on the hook in terms of creating an environment that does not encourage overconsumption of alcohol and other activities that can contribute to unprofessional behavior. If you have experienced sexual harassment or are an employer, who needs assistance in preventing sexual harassment claims in the workplace here in New Jersey, contact McOmber McOmber & Luber, P.C. for a consultation.