’Tis the season for workplace holiday parties. It a time to reflect on the past year and celebrate all your organization has accomplished. It is also a time to avoid liability, hopefully. A lot can go wrong at a holiday party.
For example, consider Shiner v. State Univ. of N.Y. (W.D.N.Y. 11/2/12).
Lesley Shiner worked as a clerk at the University at Buffalo Dental School. Dr. Jude Fabiano was the school’s associate dean and Steve Colombo its director of clinical operations. Each year the school holds an annual Christmas party. Shiner attended the 2010 party despite her reservations about sexually inappropriate conduct and sexually explicit comments made by Colombo and Fabiano during the 2008 and 2009 parties.
Shiner should have listened to her inner voice and stayed home. In her lawsuit, she alleged that during the party Fabiano:
- Fondled her breasts.
- Inserted his tongue in her ear.
- Chased her around a table.
- Grabbed her by her neck and bent her over a table.
- Pushed her face together with that of another female employee and told them to kiss, stated that he wanted some “girl on girl” action, and asked for the three of them to be together sexually.
- Pulled her on his lap and asked her to meet him somewhere after the party.
- Pinched and squeezed her ribs when she resisted his advances.
- Normal work rules and standards apply to holiday parties. As a subtle reminder, consider holding an anti-harassment refresher in anticipation of the party.
- Review your insurance policies for alcohol-related exclusions.
- When scheduling your party, consider that employees are less likely to indulge on a work night than a Friday or Saturday.
- Remind employees to drink responsibly and plan ahead for safe transportation. Help employees by limiting consumption via drink tickets, offering plenty of non-alcoholic options, and providing designated drivers, cab vouchers, or hotel rooms for those unfit to drive home.
- Have trained and experienced bartenders, and emphasize that they should not over-pour drinks, or serve guests who appear intoxicated or underage.
- Designate one or more managers or supervisors to refrain from drinking and monitor the party for over-consumption.
- Close the bar an hour or more before the party ends.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to culture. If your company has a culture of condoning Shiner’s misbehavior, no policy or training will render your holiday parties (or any workday, for that matter) safe.
You need to decide what kind of company you want to be, and set the tone year-round. Then, when it comes time for the annual holiday party, you will not have to worry about an employee being bent over a table or asked for a threesome. And, if it happens, your employees will have confidence that your company will address the offending behavior quickly and severely.
Cheers, be safe, and enjoy your holiday celebrations.