According to a recent survey of 105 companies by an executive search firm, 91 percent were planning to throw an office holiday party, this year, up from 74 percent last year.
New York readers may be tempted to interpret the increase as a boon to holiday cheer. However, despite the timing, many human resources executives caution that holiday office parties should not be viewed as a social event. Doing so may result in unanticipated sexual harassment claims.
Of course, intimate touching or comments of a sexual nature are always inappropriate at a holiday office party. However, other behavior may seem less offensive, yet still constitute behavior that crosses the line.
According to some studies, 30 percent of employees have flirted with a coworker at a holiday party, and another 26 percent confessed to having shared too much personal information. Although such behavior may start innocently, it can be hard to gauge in the moment whether you have gone too far, venturing into unprofessional interactions.
In other cases, exchanges at a holiday party may lead to subsequent interactions that cross the line. For example, in one case a male coworker left Post-It notes on a female employee's computer after making advances at a holiday party. Although the messages were small, they were too personal, prompting a sexual harassment complaint from the woman and ultimately resulting in his termination.
The best approach to holiday parties may be to view them as networking, rather than social events. HR professionals advise employees to treat such events as an opportunity to advance their career -- and their personal brand -- and to make adequate preparations accordingly. Specifically, a game plan might include a game plan on how to work the room, the types of conversations to have, and a set time to leave. The best impression will be made by appearances that are courteous, professional -- and short.
Employers might also plan for such events by distributing copies of the company's sexual harassment policy in advance of the event, as well as its policies on drugs and substance abuse. The policies could also be posted in break rooms or other public places.
For those workers unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of inappropriate behavior at an office holiday party, an attorney can advise them on their rights and the best course of action to enforce the available protections offered by federal, state and local laws. Those laws include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, New York State's Human Rights Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law.
Source: hr.blr.com, "Preventing sexual harassment at holiday parties," Dec. 3, 2012