Sexual Harassment at the Holiday Party

Company holiday parties can be a fun way to get to know your colleagues better, network at work, and celebrate the season. Unfortunately, the joyous, exuberant atmosphere can be overshadowed by unacceptable behavior.  Alcohol is often served at company holiday parties, and as everyone knows, alcohol can inhibit decision making, and has been known to lead to embarrassing and damaging consequences.  Sometimes this unacceptable behavior amounts to sexual harassment.  Before the party kicks off, learn what sexual harassment looks like, and what to do if your office holiday party experience is ruined by an overstepping Grinch.

What does sexual harassment look like?

Sexual harassment is harassment based on an individual’s sex.  Sexual harassment does not need to be sexual in nature, though it often is. People of any gender (including non-binary individuals) can perpetrate sexual harassment, and likewise, can be the victim of sexual harassment.

There are two types of sexual harassment: hostile work environment, and quid pro quo harassment.

In a hostile work environment scenario at a company holiday party, the harasser may make inappropriate requests and sexual advances. For example, a harasser many show a colleague inappropriate sexual imagery, like pictures, videos, or gifs. Perhaps they gave you a sexually suggestive Secret Santa gift. A harasser might ask invasive questions and remarks about their personal lives or engage in offensive sexual behavior or flirting.  Maybe they are jingle-bell rocking a little too close.  Sometimes a harasser engages in inappropriate or sexually charged touching or make comments about a colleague’s looks or ugly sweater. Other times, a harasser might say sex or gender-based slurs or derogatory remarks. Even if the harasser doesn’t recognize their own behavior as harassment, that doesn’t mean it isn’t.

Quid pro quo is Latin for “this for that.” In quid pro quo sex harassment cases, the harassment takes on the form of a bargaining tool. For example, a harasser may offer to forgive poor performance of an employee in exchange for sexual contact, or may offer a raise, promotion or other perks in exchange for the same. If a colleague subjects you to harassment because you do not want to engage in sexual advances, or otherwise punishes you for refusing to participate in sexual requests or behavior, that, too, qualifies as quid pro quo sexual harassment.  In other words, if your promotion is contingent on posing closely with the office Santa, you may be the victim of quid pro quo harassment.

What should you do if you experience sexual harassment at the company holiday party?

Don’t stand for those reindeer games. It is important that you take immediate steps to protect yourself, even if you had some eggnog yourself. Evidence will help you prove your case, so it is advisable to document everything – who harassed you? Where at the party were you? Were there witnesses? What was said or done, and by whom? If your company has a formal policy for reporting sexual harassment, follow it. This may include submitting a written complaint to human resources or to your supervisor. Next, get help from a lawyer. It is possible that you will be subject to retaliation (demotion, termination, or other changes in the terms and conditions of your employment) because you complained. Don’t ring in the new year alone: get assistance from an employment lawyer experienced in sexual harassment in the workplace.

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