May 29, 2022

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Holiday parties have unique potential for harassment

By Christopher B. Dolan and Emile Davis

My workplace is hosting a holiday party and the company is telling us to keep it work-related and professional if we decide to attend. I don’t plan on getting crazy, but can they tell us how to act outside of our work schedule? It seems a bit much.

— Matthew H., San Francisco

Each year, the Dolan Law Firm receives multiple phone calls from people who have been the victim of harassment or discrimination at company-sponsored holiday parties. The holiday season is, once again, upon us, and if everyone thinks ahead, many of the potential pitfalls can be averted and everyone can enjoy the party.

End-of-year holiday parties have a unique potential for sexual harassment. Several factors combine to make sexual harassment a particular danger at these types of functions. Holiday parties often take place at a location away from the worksite. This factor alone can lead to the relaxing of the behaviors people tend to understand as “workplace appropriate.” The fact that people are interacting in much more social environment than usual can also add to the tendency for people to stray from workplace norms. This is often exacerbated by the often-accepted use of alcohol at these events. This combination can be recipe for bad things to happen.

The good news is employers can take steps to minimize the dangers of harassment. One thing an employer can do is include a copy of the workplace discrimination and harassment policies within any email or invitation, or a simple reminder that the policies in place at the worksite are applicable to the holiday party as well.

Reminders that, although co-workers will be interacting socially, they must treat each other with the respect they have for one another in the workplace, can set clear guidelines for what is appropriate behavior. Archaic traditions that attempt to legitimize and trivialize harassment, such as kissing under the mistletoe, need to be left in the past.

If the employer is hosting the bar, a limit on the number of drinks can keep people from overindulging. No good has ever come from a person overdrinking at a holiday party.

Making sure, prior to the event, that everyone has a safe way to get home is also a big help. It can save an employee from getting a DUI. And, importantly, it can ensure an intoxicated worker is not coerced to accept a ride home from somebody who makes them uncomfortable or who has ill intent.

If the employer participates in a gift exchange or “Secret Santa” game at the holiday party, a clear understanding of what types of gifts are acceptable is imperative. Sexualized gifts may seem funny to some, but can be offensive and traumatic to others given their particular history. Joke gifts can be fun and funny, but can also cross the line into scary intentional harassment.

For example, Dolan Law Firm proudly represented an African American woman who was singled out to receive a particular gift at a holiday party. She was purposely presented a purse embroidered like a confederate flag which contained pictures of the owner of the company dressed as Donald Trump in front of a sign indicating that the south would rise again.

Another area of concern at holiday parties is religious discrimination and harassment. Not everyone celebrates Christmas. People of other faiths should not feel pressure to be involved in a religious-based holiday, or to explain why they are not. We can all celebrate the end of the year, and most religions have some sort of a mid-winter holiday or day of remembrance.

When employers make the expectations clear and plans for the well-being of all the employees, it allows everyone to enjoy the holiday party.

Each employee can also help. Everyone should have a pre-planned manner to travel home safely. Don’t encourage overindulgence in alcohol. Think about how the gift you are giving may be received. Act with dignity and respect toward your co-workers. Enjoy the party.

Hopefully, this year Dolan Law Firm does not receive one of those calls.

Christopher B. Dolan is the owner of Dolan Law Firm, PC. Emile Davis is a Managing Attorney in our Oakland Office. We serve clients throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and California from our offices in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. Email questions and topics for future articles to: [email protected] Each situation is different, and this column does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with an experienced trial attorney to fully understand your rights.

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