There’s nothing like a celebration to bring co-workers together and make them feel as though they’re one unified work family. Although a celebratory meal or party can bring cohesiveness, employers should be careful not to let celebratory events become a liability. Of course, the entire point is to allow attendees to relax, have fun, and interact on a more personal level. But, the double-edge comes from attendees mistaking a relaxed atmosphere as leeway to behave in an inappropriate manner or attendees becoming so relaxed that they behave in a way that they normally wouldn’t. Out-of-bounds behavior should be of particular concern if there’s alcohol involved in the workplace celebration.
In order to avoid lawsuits, there are several elements that employers should consider prior to any celebratory workplace event. Before the event, employers should make sure that they have informed the attendees of what will be considered improper behavior. It’s a good idea to remind and caution employees that even though the event is a party, it’s still a business event and that inappropriate touching, gifting, and off-color or offensive remarks are still considered inappropriate behaviors. Employers should be mindful that under Title VII, it only takes one inappropriate incident to bring about a timely and costly lawsuit. It might be helpful to have supervisors or managers go over the company policy with employees, especially the sexual harassment section. While going over the company policy, the supervisor or manager can also inform employees if there will be any exceptions to normal company policy made specifically for the party, such as attire varying from the normal dress code.
In the event that clients will be attending a workplace party, employers might have additional concerns that should be addressed beforehand. For example, what should an employee do if a client is making inappropriate advances or conversation? It’s usually pretty clear to employees how to handle such a situation during normal workplace hours, but sometimes employees are specifically told to make sure clients have fun at a party. This can create a recipe for legal disaster if not addressed properly. Make sure to set up a way for any employee that’s been given such an assignment to exit the situation if it becomes uncomfortable for them. This can be accomplished by setting up a room as a coffee bar or lounge and ushering clients that become unruly to the room to calm down or sober up. It’s also a good idea to have a buddy system in place for all employees handling clients. If a client becomes unruly or inappropriate he/she can be passed off to their designated buddy.
If alcohol is served, employers might consider having only a specific time frame for it. This can help to prevent party-goers from becoming intoxicated, belligerent, or driving home intoxicated. It’s also a good idea to have a transportation system, such as cabs or designated drivers, in place for party-goers that overdo it on alcohol.
Although inappropriate behavior directed toward an employee’s guest or family member might not be considered workplace harassment, it can cause a great deal of unnecessary workplace conflict. It should be made clear that inappropriate behavior toward any guest will have disciplinary actions.
One last concern is the first workday following the party. Everything that happened or didn’t happen will be discussed and scrutinized. Conversation and actions that might have been laughed at during the party or intended innocently might not always be so funny or acceptable by the next day. It’s important to encourage an open and honest dialogue about any gossip topics so that misconceptions and hard feelings can be prevented.