The holiday’s are officially upon us, marking the much-anticipated season of office and work-related festivities. Unfortunately, this festive time of year brings with it many issues we’d rather not face. Welcome to the season of sexual harassment claims, both real and false allegations. These claims impact not only the companies hosting the events, but their employees too.
While in recent years, over 95% of Fortune 500 companies have required sexual harassment training, over the past several years there has still been a significant rise in sexual harassment claims in the work place. It is clear by this trend that the education provided is failing and holiday celebrations only serve as proof of this breakdown. There is an expected rise in sexual harassment claims surrounding holiday celebrations as they provide a fertile breeding ground for sexual harassment to occur. This is thought in part due to the consumption of alcohol and the casual environment. Typically holiday parties take place outside of the workplace, employees are in non-workplace attire and guests are typically devoid of titles and positions in lieu of creating a festive and relaxing atmosphere.
Approaching a holiday celebration in this manner leaves the employer and employee at risk for the abyss of harassment claims. A prudent employer would be wise to remind everyone that all holiday events are an extension of the workplace and work-related codes of conduct are still in effect. Think of them as an outside meeting. Hence, this means no ogling, no touching, no confessions about your desires for the other person, no pet names, and no cat calls. This includes no sexual jokes, sexually offensive comments or displays with sexually suggestive objects and no unwelcome actions. Many would like to blame sexually harassing behavior on the alcohol but alcohol is not an acceptable defense.
Let’s define this behavior in its simplest form. In the most basic terms, sexual harassment is unwelcomed sexual advances, request for sexual favors and other similar comments and conduct. The phrase hostile work environment is another form of sexual harassment. This is created when there are comments, gestures or behaviors that are pervasive and make others feel uncomfortable. In short, inappropriate comments directed at someone else may make those who overhear them feel uncomfortable. The burden of this claim is to prove that this behavior is pervasive. Bottom line, any comments directed to you or overheard by you that bring about a feeling of discomfort would qualify and the numbers are increasing.
In fact, a 2011 AOL Jobs survey reported that, “one in six persons has been sexually harassed in the work place”. In fact, research for the new book what matters most is what you do next: dealing with adversity, found similar conclusions—that one in seven persons in the work place has been or will be directly or peripherally involved in a sexual harassment interaction or claim. Some would argue that sexual harassment claims may be the fastest growing human relations issue in the country. Additionally, intentional false allegations of sexual harassment, outside of crimes associated with internet actives, is arguably the fastest growing white collar crime in America.
Why holiday parties are a prime arena for false allegations of sexual harassment?
The first reason would be the alcohol. Many people consume much more than they typically would and thus compromise themselves with relaxed inhibitions. Their recollection about any of the events surrounding the party would not be considered credible due to the intoxication. To those with malicious intent this is the perfect time to attempt a false sexual harassment claim. They can claim it and because of the alcohol you may not have the memory or the credibility to defend it.
Secondly, many companies use the annual holiday as the opportunity to thank employees. Thus there are high “target”, high echelon leadership present. Employees who typically do not have access to the chiefs: CEO, CFO, CIO, CMO, CAO, COO now have access to these individuals in a more relaxed environment. Many times these individuals are enjoying alcohol as well, which could contribute to their own victimization in a false sexual harassment claim.
Thirdly, the expensive holiday season creates an environment for a false sexual harassment claim. Many believe that filing a claim means they will easily receive a financial payoff. Money is a driving factor for a false claim in most instances. People are more likely to need money during this period of time. Hence there is a build in incentive in place for a person who is financially strapped and at a holiday party with an intoxicated person flirting with others (it is important to highlight that if someone claimed sexual harassment because they overheard the intoxicated person making sexual comments to someone else that would not be a false claim). Most are not aware that it can take several months to resolve a sexual harassment claim.
If there were one piece of advice that I would give everyone attending office sponsored holiday celebrations is to wait until after the party to drink alcohol. The alcohol creates too many conflicts.
Having said that, I do think that legitimate sexual harassment often increases during holiday celebrations.
There are four pieces of advice that the companies leadership and others should follow:
- Distribute the company handbook describing sexual harassment well before the celebration.
- Meet with managers and supervisors prior to the party to re-enforce company policies.
- Have your human resources send out a reminder that holiday parties are simply an extension of the office. Hence, professional expectations have not changed.
- Limit access to alcohol. For instance a cash bar.
So, think of the company party as simply another meeting. If it is out of the office think of it as a retreat. The point is you are still at work and under the microscope. It would be helpful if you did not drink alcohol but if you do drink in moderation. Bring a date. Do not allow others to place you in a precarious predicament. Finally, if anyone sees or hears anything out of the ordinary step in and intervene.
Dr. Geoffrey Mount Varner resides in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area with his wife and two kids. He is an emergency medicine-trained and board-certified emergency medicine physician. Dr. Mount Varner holds degrees from Hampton University, Harvard University and Wayne State University. In his spare time, he competes in triathlons and has run several marathons. What matters most is what you do next is his second book. Dr. Mount Varner is most noted for saying, “I am not sure why I was put in this world and what I am going to do with my life, but I know I was put here to be a Daddy.” His new book, What matters most is what you do next, is available for purchase at www.whatmattersmost-book.com as well as other online booksellers.