Many employers hold holiday parties to build employee moral and teamwork, celebrate a successful year, or just have a little fun. But holiday parties can be fertile ground for unwanted sexual conduct that may lead to liability under Nevada law and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sexual and other forms of harassment. Many complaints have been filed against employers arising out of holiday party-related conduct, including sexual harassment, assault and battery (fights or unwelcome sexual touching) and even personal injury claims that result from employees driving under the influence of alcohol after the party.
While employers do not need to throw a sterile party to avoid litigation, preventive and smart planning can go a long way to avoiding future problems. It is important to remember that any party sponsored by an employer is an extension of the workplace. Just like their duty to prevent harassment in the workplace, employers also have a duty to prevent harassment at holiday office parties. To accomplish this, employers should consider the following steps:
Harassment-Free Workplace Policy. Every employer should have a harassment-free workplace policy that prohibits sexual, racial, religious and other forms of workplace harassment. The policy should have reporting, investigation and anti-retaliation provisions and not be limited to employer premises. Employers should remind employees that holiday festivities do not provide an excuse for violating the harassment-free policy. In Nevada there are numerous adult-oriented entertainment options. But such options – even if attendance at the party is voluntary – are not wise because certain employees may feel pressured into attending, may not welcome the sexually related environment, and may ultimately complain.
Supervisory Training. Employers should train supervisors about expected and accepted conduct. This training should be based upon the company’s harassment policy, code of conduct and dress code. Supervisors should set a professional example during the holiday party. Unprofessional conduct and provocative dressing may encourage other employees to act unprofessionally, which may lead to escalating improper conduct and harassing situations.
Restrict Alcohol Consumption. If alcohol will be available at the holiday party, which does not have to be the case (the Department of Labor recommends against it), the employer should consider the type of alcohol, duration of access and payment options. Limiting alcohol access by placing restrictions on the time it will be available or the number of drinks that will be served (such as through drink tickets) can reduce the possibility that employees will drink excessively. Employees who appear intoxicated should not be served further alcohol. Designated drivers or other means of transportation should be arranged in advance to ensure that employees have a safe way to get home.
Inviting Non-Employees. Allowing employees to bring their or significant others to a holiday party can discourage inappropriate conduct. Inviting important customers or business partners can also change the atmosphere of a company party and keep it at a more professional level.
Preventive planning may not keep inappropriate conduct from occurring. If it does, deal with it. Taking prompt, effective corrective action may not be an absolute bar to liability, but it shows that the employer does not condone the conduct and may prevent the conduct from being imputed to the employer.
While holiday parties are certainly designed to be enjoyable and fun, they are still “work” parties. Employers who allow work parties to get out of control may end up with litigation and significant liability under their Christmas tree.