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Sexual harassment at a company holiday party is still harassment

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You never had any problem with sexual harassment in your workplace. Then came the annual holiday party. Alcohol was flowing freely, and people were getting relaxed – too relaxed. Someone sexually harassed or maybe even assaulted you. Can you take action even though it occurred after work hours and outside of the office?

Employees need to abide by company policies like those prohibiting harassment and discrimination whether they’re actually in the workplace or not as long as they’re at a company-sponsored event. 

Even before most people started working at home last year, many companies did away with holiday parties – particularly those held at restaurants and other venues where alcohol is served – largely because they were a breeding ground for alcohol-related incidents (including drunk driving and sexual assault). The risk of costly litigation became too high, and many employees were happier with a nice end-of-year bonus.

What obligations do businesses have for employee behavior at these gatherings?

Employers who choose to hold a company holiday party have an obligation to their employees to keep things safe. Many limit the number of drinks people can have. Often, they send out a communication to employees reminding them that they’re expected to behave professionally with their colleagues and that there is a zero-tolerance policy regarding harassment of any kind.

The best managers lead by example. If the company owner and the human resources manager are throwing back tequila shots and dragging people onto the dance floor, it’s hard to expect others to behave appropriately.

What action should you take?

If you’ve been harassed or assaulted during a company party, you can and should report it to HR or to your manager if there isn’t an HR department. It doesn’t matter that it happened offsite or that you may have had a glass of wine yourself. The incident needs to be investigated and dealt with. You should not suffer any retaliation for reporting the incident.

If you believe that the incident wasn’t properly addressed and/or if you’ve suffered any kind of retaliation for reporting it, it may be wise to determine what your legal options may be. 

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