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Avoiding claims of harassment at office holiday parties

After recent events that led to the #metoo movement, employers may be feeling unsure of how to proceed when it comes to holiday parties. Because only a small percentage of employees are responsible for the inappropriate and predatory behaviour, some Alberta business owners and managers feel it would be unfair to eliminate holiday parties altogether. Instead, they are taking a close look at their harassment policies.

One common element in many incidents of harassment at office parties is alcohol. Free-flowing alcohol can lead to a loss of inhibitions, which may lead to regrettable and even harmful actions between co-workers. Limiting the amount of alcohol attendees can consume, for example distributing tickets for drinks, can reduce the chances that the party will get out of control.

Other ways employers are protecting their employees from harassment is by establishing a different atmosphere for their office parties. It is important that any zero tolerance policy with regards to sexual harassment in the workplace carries over into the office party. For example, making the holiday party into a family event, holding it for a limited time on site and assigning managers to monitor employee behaviour are a few ways companies are ensuring the protection of their employees.

A critical item to note is that the relaxed and festive atmosphere of an office party does not dismiss the status and rank of a supervisor over other employees. Overstepping boundaries with subordinate employees during a holiday gathering or at any time may result in serious legal trouble for the supervisor and the company. If harassment complaints arise, it is wise for an Alberta business to have legal counsel as quickly as possible to minimize the potential damage.

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