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Should employers change Christmas parties to avoid harassment claims?

If you make boundaries and expectations clear then the standard is set

It’s the time of year when we usually focus on the dos and don’ts of the work Christmas party. However, with new sexual harassment allegations hitting the headlines almost daily, companies seem to be feeling more anxious about exposing themselves to the possibility of such a claim stemming from festive work gatherings.

Recently published statistics reveal quite a startling picture of what each sex perceives sexual harassment to be. Even within the sexes there is a significant disparity. For example, older females tend to have a higher threshold before they would consider sexual harassment to have occurred, while younger female age groups are much more alert to what they consider unacceptable conduct.

It’s always advisable to issue a communication to staff to remind them that the Christmas party is an extension of the workplace and their conduct should reflect that. Pairing this with your policies on bullying harassment, equality and diversity is also essential to ensuring employees are aware of their boundaries. Alcohol can change the perspective of employees who might behave impeccably while sober and at work.

While you can prepare and train staff as much as is reasonably possible, it’s difficult to control behaviour at the party itself. Other than banning alcohol, which is likely to stop half your employees attending, it can be difficult to manage on the night.

It might be advisable for a manager or senior member of staff to stay sober and keep an eye on things. While it may appear, initially, as if they’ve drawn the short straw, being able to remain vigilant to everyone’s actions will pay dividends in the long run. It’s important to ensure that everyone is comfortable and does not appear to be in an awkward or unwanted situation. If such a situation should arise you should take action immediately, reminding both parties what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. A quick word in the ear can often be all it takes to prevent a situation from crossing the line into something more serious. However, it may still be wise to follow that up in office hours to ensure that there are no ongoing concerns.

Removing mistletoe so there is no temptation for lecherous lunging is another suggestion. Comments that are intended to be light-hearted but are perceived as offensive can be the most dangerous. The onus is on the person who is doing the behaviour to understand what is unwanted – what may be fine with one person (e.g. making a joke or giving a colleague a hug) may be completely inappropriate to another person and that doesn’t change just because you’ve had a couple of drinks. The key word to remember is 'unwanted.'

The way we behave in public goes a long way to setting standards. If you make boundaries and expectations clear then the standard is set, and anything falling short of that needs to be addressed. As we’ve seen from the headlines these last few months, it’s clear that despite all the progress that’s been made there is still a sexist attitude in some circles when it comes to women in the workplace. It’s important to note that sexual harassment can and does affect men as well and your policies should be applied equally. Employees of all genders should be able to enjoy their work Christmas party without fear of harassment or humiliation.

There is always a balance between being a Christmas killjoy and allowing a free for all but it’s still possible to have fun as long as staff are prepared and trained. Employees are adults and should be expected to behave as such, respecting each others’ boundaries while still enjoying the spirit of the season.

Emma O'Leary is an employment law consultant for the ELAS Group