Keep the “Happy” in the Workplace Holiday Party
Holiday parties are a wonderful way to conclude the year by celebrating the success of your organization and recognizing your employees. The casual nature of holiday parties (further bolstered by alcohol consumption) can sometimes lead to employees letting down their guards, parking their professionalism at the door, and engaging in inappropriate behavior. It is not surprising that many workplace sexual harassment complaints follow the year-end party.
What Constitutes Sexual Harassment?
There is no question that sexual overtures and inappropriate physical contact would firmly fall within the definition of sexual harassment. But what about the occasional dirty joke or a very ‘familiar’ comment about a person’s physical appearance… could seemingly innocent conduct be seen as sexual harassment?
A good definition of sexual harassment can be found in Bill 132, Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act (Supporting Survivors and Challenging Sexual Violence and Harassment), 2015. Bill 132 is part of the Ontario Liberal government’s action plan entitled: “It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment.” The purpose of Bill 132 is to eradicate sexual violence and harassment in Ontario workplaces and university campuses. Though not yet law, Bill 132 passed the first reading on October 27, 2015: once it receives royal assent, it will amend the Occupational Health and Safety Act amongst other legislation.
Bill 132 defines workplace sexual harassment as “…engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace because of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, where the course of comment or conduct is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.” Like the definition of harassment in the Human Rights Code, there are two elements to harassment:
- The belief/perception of the person engaging in the harassing behavior about the acceptability of their conduct/comment; and
- How the recipient of the harassment senses or receives the conduct or comment.
The Human Rights Commission has developed a fact sheet, which provides some examples of what could constitute harassment:
- demanding hugs
- invading personal space
- making unnecessary physical contact, including unwanted touching, etc.
- using language that puts someone down and/or comments using sex-specific derogatory names
- leering or inappropriate staring
- making gender-related comments about someone’s physical characteristics or mannerisms
- sexual jokes, including passing around sexual jokes (for example, via e-mail)
- spreading sexual rumors (including on-line)
- bragging about sexual prowess
- asking questions or talking about sexual activities
- making an employee dress in a sexualized or gender-specific way
- acting paternally in a way that someone thinks undermines their self-respect or position of responsibility
How to keep the “Happy” in the Holiday Party
Employees and employers are equally responsible for creating and maintaining a respectful and professional work environment. Below are my 3 tips to avoid holiday party related sexual harassment complaints.
- Recognize that the “workplace” extends beyond the four corners of your office. Whether you are in a boardroom or a bar, attending a plenary session or party, if the event is hosted by your employer, supplier or client, you are at work.
- Become familiar with your workplace policies and codes of conduct. If you breach these policies/codes, ignorance will not be seen as an excuse and a breach could attract serious consequences like discipline and job loss.
- “Know your Limit and Play Within It” (to steal one from the OLG). Save the ‘crazy drunk’ evening for an outing with your friends: keep your wits about you!
- Set the tone by communicating the standards for acceptable behavior in advance of the event. Refer employees to your workplace policies and codes of conduct.
- Model proper behavior. Ensure your event is fun, inclusive, and respectful for all who attend.
- Investigate any formal or informal complaints of harassment. This will be a legal requirement when Bill 132 comes into law so there is no time like the present to take proper responsive action.
Don’t turn holiday cheer into a legal nightmare! Heed the advice above for a festive and fun year-end event.