Christmas parties are positive occasions, held to celebrate the festive season and the end of a year of hard work. There is, however, a darker side to these events where overuse of alcohol, proximity to colleagues and inappropriate behaviour can create a troubling atmosphere. During these events, incidents of sexual harassment can take place in the hope that these will fall under the employer's radar. It is imperative, therefore, that employers take proactive action to limit the risk of harassment occurring.
In advance of the party, employers can send a reminder to their staff about the standard of behaviour that is expected of them at the event. This could be in the form of a Christmas party policy or simply an email or staff note. The reminder can contain examples of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, fully outlining what acts will be seen as sexual harassment. It should also be explained to staff that the Christmas party is likely to be seen as an extension of the workplace so the normal company rules on sexual harassment apply and, if any incidents occur, disciplinary action will be carried out.
When making arrangements for the party, consideration should be given to matters that could contribute towards misconduct. For example, rather than having a free bar throughout the event, employers should assess whether they might only offer a number of complimentary drinks or a series of happy hours instead. Reducing the amount of free alcohol on offer will limit the risk of drunken behaviour culminating in harassing behaviour, or any other type of misconduct.
During the party, a senior member of staff can be allocated as a designated person to monitor behaviour and to receive reports of harassment incidents. Although staying alcohol-free may not be desirable at the event, a major concern raised through recent sexual harassment allegations has been the lack of an available person to make complaints to. Having a designated person removes any uncertainty about raising concerns, and will also indicate to all members of staff that this issue is being taken seriously by the company.
After the party, any sexual harassment concerns should be handled immediately. Leaving these to fester over the Christmas period will be seen as negative treatment by the victim and could lead the perpetrator to believe they can get away with this kind of behaviour. Instead, in a timely manner, the employer should investigate the sexual harassment concerns, including interviewing any witnesses and taking witness statements from these. Once a full investigation has been completed, a disciplinary procedure can be carried out, if appropriate. In severe cases, the sexual harassment may be deemed as gross misconduct allowing the employer to dismiss the employee without any notice. Where less serious cases have been reported, a formal disciplinary sanction, such as a formal warning, can be given to punish and deter the individual from carrying out further sexual harassment.