Avoiding Holiday Party Headaches & Litigation Hangovers

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Articles and blog posts on the legal risks associated with holiday parties are everywhere this time of year. Just Google “holiday party and harassment” and you’ll get over 2,000,000 results. They may not all be relevant, but you get the picture.

The articles with solid advice all say about the same thing…

  • STEP 1: Plan carefully
  • STEP 2: Provide effective harassment training to your managers and employees
  • STEP 3: Limit alcohol

Clearly this advice is important to follow. An Adecco survey from 2010 found that:

  • 40% of people at work-sponsored holiday events saw or suffered a major indiscretion
  • 14% knew someone who was fired for bad behavior at a company holiday party
  • 20% of respondents reported drinking too much at a work holiday party

And some of these employees file sexual harassment lawsuits—if you want to know how bad things can get, Google these cases:

  • Stathatos v. Gala Resources, LLC, No. 06 Civ. 13138 (S.D.N.Y. 2010)
  • Carver v. Waste Connections of TN, Inc., No. 3:10-cv-00501 (E.D. Tenn. 2006)
  • King v. Board of Regents of University of Wisconsin System, 898 F.2d 533 (7th Cir.1990)
  • EEOC v. Rose Casual Dining, L.P., No. 02-cv-7485 (E.D. Pa. 2004)
  • Russ v. Van Scoyoc Associates, Inc., 122 F. Supp. 2d 29 (D.D.C. 2000)
  • Brennan v Towsend & O'Leary, ___Cal.App.4th___ (October 18, 2011)

And even if the employer wins some and loses some, it takes a lot of time and money to defend a charge or a lawsuit.  Littler estimates that it costs nearly $150,000 to defend a case (whether it has merit or not)—and that number doesn’t include judgments and interest.

Heed the Advice or Pay the Price

So what can happen in the modern workplace if you don’t follow this sage advice? I thought I’d give you some of my best predictions.

1. The Tweet Heard Round the Office

According to a new Cisco survey, 90% of young professionals have a Facebook account, and 70% of them friend their managers on Facebook. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that nearly 50% of all adults use social networking sites.

Whether it's a tweet, a wall post, or a text about the hot new employee or about the boss who can’t keep his or her hands off the assistant, rest assured that nothing remains truly private anymore. A racy message will get retweeted, posted, and shared—and if it’s juicy enough, it will go viral.  An inappropriate message makes great litigation evidence.

2. Ohhh...Thaaaaaaaaaaat Video!

Smartphones (with video capability) at an office party = immature and obscene videos posted on the internet. Don’t believe me? Just check out this video, and this one, and this one. If you want more, you can find them all on YouTube.

A video post of employees behaving badly is not only embarrassing, but also very disruptive—whether its two drunk women singing sexually charged lyrics, a drunk manager groping a female employee, or employees just acting stupid, this isn’t how you want your holiday party to be remembered.

3. Don't Invite Santa

Maybe it’s a bit harsh, but Santa at an adult party can go wrong in so many ways.

Just last month, the a California Court of Appeals published a decision (Brennan v. Townsend & O’Leary Enterprises) involving a manager who came to a holiday party dressed as Santa; he asked female employees to sit on his lap and then asked them inappropriate questions about their sex life.

The jury said the plaintiff should win, and judges later decided to overturn it. But nonetheless, a lot of time and money went into defending this case.  And do you really want that to be your organization’s legacy?

I could go on. The examples are endless…but the solutions are pretty simple.

Absolutely have a party. Your employees have worked hard this past year and they deserve to take a break. But remember, "what happens at the party” doesn’t always stay at the party.

So, heed some simple advice:

  • Plan carefully
  • Remind all employees to be professional and control themselves this holiday season
  • Provide harassment training to your employees and managers so they don’t go wild
  • Limit alcohol consumption

It’s your decision to make—either heed the advice or pay the price in 2012.


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