Company Holiday Parties, Professionalism, and Discrimination/Sexual Harassment

‘Tis the season for company holiday parties, where the awkward mingling with co-workers and the free flow of alcohol can combine to create uncomfortable and humiliating social situations and, in some cases, possible legal liability for discrimination and harassment.

Despite various warnings about maintaining professionalism, it seems that every year there are people who embarrass themselves in front of their colleagues. Even though it may look, feel like, and even be called a “party”, the company holiday function should be treated as an extension of the office proper.

Many office party shenanigans – the good, the bad, and the ugly – can likely be traced to the consumption of alcohol.  It is hardly surprising that employees tend to be less careful about their conduct at work-related social events when alcohol is added to the mix.

Unfortunately, even if you make every effort to maintain professionalism and decorum, there is always the possibility that you will be the target of inappropriate sexual conduct. Federal, New York State, and New York City law prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace, and the rules that apply during “work time” arguably apply at off-premises company functions.

Sexual harassment may occur in many different ways, and can include a pattern of conduct or a single, egregious act (such as sexual assault). Some ways in which sexual harassment may occur in the holiday party context include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Suggesting a “mistletoe kiss”,
  • Drunken come-ons, flirting, or touching,
  • Making remarks about an employee’s clothing, outfit, or body,
  • Providing sexually suggestive, romantic, or “gag” gifts, and
  • Coercing co-workers into playing games, such as “truth or dare”, “strip poker”, or engaging into other activities that may require uncomfortable physical contact or lead to otherwise humiliating interactions.

For example, in Suares v. Cityscape Tours, Inc., No. 11 CIV. 5650 AJN, 2014 WL 969661 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 12, 2014) aff’d, 603 F. App’x 16 (2d Cir. 2015), plaintiff alleged that during a company holiday party her co-worker sexually assaulted her, “jumped onto the couch where she was sitting, threw his left leg over her shoulder, placed his right hand on top of or in the back of her head, and began banging his [unexposed] genitals into her face.” The court held that a rational jury could “find that that conduct was sufficiently severe, and resulted in an intolerable alteration of Suares’ working conditions” for purposes of plaintiff’s sexual harassment (hostile work environment) claim. (The court nevertheless dismissed that claim because plaintiff failed to show that defendants “failed to provide Plaintiff with a reasonable avenue of complaint, or that they knew of the harassment, but did nothing about it.”)

Sexual harassment is not the only type of unlawful conduct that may occur in the context of an office holiday party.  The relaxed, social, alcohol-tinged environment may facilitate or encourage inappropriate comments or conduct relating to employees’ race, religion, national origin, or other protected statuses.

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