Friday, December 5, 2008

Holiday Parties: How Businesses Can Avoid Sexual Harassment Lawsuits

Guest Post by Jessica Hawthorne

As holiday decorations start to go up around the office and everyone is full of seasonal cheer, many businesses may find that work parties, along with a more relaxed environment, can lead to sexual harassment claims.

Much too often – especially if the event is off-site and the alcohol flows freely – the office holiday party becomes a breeding ground for this sort of behavior. It seems that some employees can get the impression that professional behavior isn’t necessary at the festivities.

But that’s not the case. If it’s a work-sponsored event, workplace etiquette applies. And unfortunately for employers, liability can be the unexpected Christmas delivery if things aren’t handled properly.

Every year, claims and lawsuits over sexual harassment problems cost companies millions of dollars. In 2007, for example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received nearly 25,000 sex-discrimination complaints and fined businesses more than $135 million for violating these workplace protections, the highest level since 2002.

But businesses can protect employees against legal turmoil by taking simple steps to prevent harassment from occurring at the office holiday party – or anywhere else:
  • Advise employees of all relevant policies, such as harassment, dress code and appropriate workplace behavior.
  • Make sure all supervisors have received sexual harassment training.
  • Make sure everyone knows how to report unwanted or unwelcome behavior.
  • Remind all employees that the company's sexual harassment policies will be in full force and effect during the event.
Despite training and preparation, sexual harassment claims could arise, so employers should also be aware of how to mitigate the situation. It’s important to act swiftly if there are any complaints to determine what happened and how best to deal with the claim. That way, you will have done your harassment prevention due diligence if any legal situation arises later.

The best way to accomplish this – and follow California law – is to conduct proactive employee training and awareness against all forms of harassment.

All organizations, and that includes businesses, government agencies and non-profits, with 50 or more employees are required to train all supervisory personnel in sexual harassment prevention. Employers must prove that all of these employees take an interactive, two-hour harassment prevention course within six months of hire and every two years thereafter.

So keep in mind that while sexual harassment prevention is relevant all year round, now is a good time to give your office a refresher course. Your business should enjoy this festive time of year by keeping employees aware and preventing sexual harassment before it starts.

Jessica Hawthorne is an employment attorney the California Chamber of Commerce. More information on sexual harassment prevention training and many other workplace issues can be found at

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