Will The “Spirits” Of The Holiday Haunt You? (Not Just Your Obligatory “Holiday Party” Blog Post)

by Seyfarth Shaw LLP
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Seyfarth Synopsis:  Over the next few weeks, we’re going to weigh in on the growing national debate around the recent wave of sexual harassment allegations.  To date, no one seems immune from the allegations: celebrities, politicians, presidents. See for instance Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2017 issue. We hope this dialogue will empower employees and employers, alike, to speak up before inappropriate, but previously unmentioned conduct, festers.  This conversation also creates an opportunity for a company to look hard at its corporate culture and how it can strive to make it welcoming and inclusive. Welcome to our three part series. 

The First in a Three Part Series Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.  (Part 1)

A Blog in Three Parts:  Kicking off our three part series – this week’s installment will look at how to avoid some of the landmines that can accompany holiday parties; Part 2 will look at the role corporate culture plays in establishing that feeling of mutual respect and shared courtesy; and then in Part 3 we will invite Philippe Weiss, Esq., Managing Director of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, to share his insights from the front lines and his thoughts on how organizations can credibly and effectively combat workplace sexual harassment.

’Tis the Season: Perhaps more than any other time, lawyers and laypeople alike are talking about sexual harassment.  Indeed, the country is in the midst of an important national conversation about such abuses of power and is trying to come to terms with what the despicable “me too” allegations say about our workplaces and our values.  We hope this conversation, the national headlines, social media campaigns, and watercooler conversations, shine a light on genuine misconduct that should be addressed.  But with the holiday season — and the holiday party season — upon us, this adds an extra layer of anxiety to the already wide range of “what could possibly go wrong” scenarios.

We recognize that this year, perhaps more than others, people may be on heightened alert for misconduct or have a lower threshold for what may be considered inappropriate work place conduct.  But Holiday parties also provide an important opportunity to build comradery, give thanks, show appreciation for your employees’ hard work throughout the year, and recognize past achievements. We don’t think you should scuttle these good intentions, but we do think a little advance planning can ease the process.  So, this week, we’re decking the halls with some blogs from the Ghost of Holiday Party’s past (such as Don’t Let Too Much Eggnog Ruin Your Office Holiday Party: Tips to Limit Employer Liability at Company Parties and Don’t Be Scrooged: Wage & Hour Tips To Help Employers Avoid Holiday Party Humbug) , in which our colleagues have sagely opined on how to spread holiday cheer without getting run over by a reindeer (or a charge of harassment).

Party Planning Tips to Consider:

  • Prior to the party, circulate a memo (or an email to all employees) reiterating your company’s policy against sexual and other forms of harassment.
  • Remind employees in that communication that the policy applies to their conduct at company parties and other social events, and they should act in a professional manner at all times.
  • Make attendance at the holiday party entirely voluntary and convey that message to employees with unwavering clarity.
  • Set a tone of moderation by reminding employees of the company’s policy against the abuse of alcohol and zero tolerance with respect to the possession, use, or sale of illegal drugs.
  • Consider limiting the amount of alcohol served and/or stop serving well before the party ends (and have lots of non-alcoholic alternatives).-
  • Have plenty of food, (and curb the concern that someone may be drinking on an empty stomach).
  • No mistletoe, no scantily clad elves, and no “bad Santa” (for all the obvious reasons)!
  • Remind managers to set a professional example, and designate several managers to be on the lookout for anyone who appears to be impaired or intoxicated.
  • Anticipate the need for alternative transportation and don’t allow employees who have been drinking heavily to drive home.

Post-Party Wrap-Up: Of course, if post-party concerns are raised, they should be addressed promptly (investigated if necessary), and, where applicable, dealt with consistent with other incidents of inappropriate conduct.  Remember, just because something happened “off campus” does not make it “off limits” from the Company’s standpoint.  Ensuring that your employees know you are going to respond to any allegation of misconduct sends a powerful message.

Once you’ve gotten past the holidays, and as you face 2018 with a clear head and renewed hope for the new year, it’s a good time to start thinking about whether your company needs to change its ways (like Scrooge after meeting the Ghost of Christmas Future) or to improve its employee communications (like Walter the Dad in Elf) or to be more inclusive (like Santa stopping at the Island of MisFit Toys).  And while making such changes can be challenging, think of the good that can come from them.

Next week, we’ll look at the importance of corporate culture in these times of heightened awareness.  Stay tuned.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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