When Is Harassment at an Office Christmas Party Against the Law?

December 20, 2019

Office Christmas parties and similar gatherings pose an issue for employees. It’s inevitable that alcoholic beverages will be part of the festivities. That can lead to some loosening up a little too much and engaging in unexpected behaviors. One of the more common issues is unwanted sexual comments and advancements that constitute sexual harassment. If it happens after hours at a party, is it still sexual harassment in the workplace?

Workplace harassment takes place when someone makes another feel belittled or threatened. The harassment can be sexual in nature, but it can also occur due to religion, disability, nationality/race, or pregnancy. Typically, the laws prevent this type of behavior from happening in the workplace. What if the Christmas party is held at a local restaurant or hotel? Does that change the laws? Is it still against the law?

A Few Important Things to Know About Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment occurs when someone feels unsafe at work. You have Quid Pro Quo harassment where there is a threat of “if you don’t do this, I’ll do that…” It often involves something sexual in nature, such as a boss telling his employee that if she sleeps with him during an upcoming business trip, he’ll give her a promotion. There is harassment that causes a “hostile work environment,” such as a worker who reports what a co-worker says about a client. The worker reports what was said and many in the department label him a snitch and dump drinks on him, take his items, and make his day unpleasant as a result.

The key here is that the harassment has to create an unsafe or intimidating workplace. If you don’t like something that’s said and find it annoying, annoyance isn’t generally going to create an unsafe workplace. If a co-worker has too much to drink and gets flirtatious but doesn’t advance from there and apologizes for the behavior after sobering up, it doesn’t meet the criteria for an unsafe workplace.

The laws do not specify where this harassment must take place or when it happens in order for it to count. If the person feels unsafe at work following a situation that occurred outside of work hours or at another location, the Department of Labor considers it workplace harassment. Say an employee is at an office Christmas party and is hit on by a manager. The employee refuses, and the manager makes threats. The next day at work, the employee struggles with what happens and cannot perform the job duties that are expected. When that manager enters the room, the person begins to panic that the manager is about to fire him/her. That can qualify as workplace harassment, even if the party was off-site.

You don’t have to have been the victim. If you spotted a co-worker being harassed at the Christmas party and speak up, you’re protected by workplace harassment laws. The person at the Christmas party that is harassing you or someone else doesn’t have to be a co-worker. Under U.S. employment harassment laws, the person doing the harassing could be a vendor, client, or other non-employee.

What Do You Do If You Feel You’ve Been Harassed at a Work-Related Function?

Make sure you have told the party harassing you to stop. If that doesn’t help, seek a supervisor and ask for help. Report the incident and see how the supervisor responds. If the supervisor you tell does not take corrective action, go to HR as soon as possible and file a harassment report. Laws require management to investigate and take action. If harassment is suspected, the management team should take immediate corrective action with the person responsible for the negative behavior.

You have the right to go to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and file a discrimination charge related to the harassment. There are time limits. Do this as quickly as possible. The time limits can be as little as 180 days, so you don’t want to hold off. The EEOC will work with you and help you better understand your options.

Employment and harassment laws can be difficult to navigate. If you’re not certain the actions from the night of the Christmas party count, you should ask for expert legal advice. A discussion with the employment law attorneys at Shegerian Conniff doesn’t cost anything. Our attorneys specialize in employment and personal injury cases. We can help you better understand if what you experienced counts as workplace harassment or not. Call us for a free consultation. Consultations are confidential, available 24/7, and give you the answers you need.