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The Office Holiday Party – Alcohol-Induced Stupidity Can Lead to Serious Sexual Harassment Claims

Posted in Discrimination & Harassment, Human Resources (HR) Compliance

UPDATED

There are no statistics out there to prove this point, but the traditional office holiday party has to be among the top places where claims of sexual harassment and hostile work environment start.

Indeed, just a cursory look at some federal employment cases shows a common thread that run through each of them: alcohol-induced stupidity leading to serious sexual harassment claims. 

Don’t believe me? Here are just a few cases in point:

  • In Russ v. Van Scoyoc Associates, Inc., 122 F. Supp. 2d 29, 31 (D.D.C. 2000), the Court said that during a office holiday party "several people became very intoxicated".  After the party, several employees went to another bar to continue socializing.  As the day worn on, the supervisor  began making a number of "sexually explicit and offensive remarks to [the female employee], telling her that he admired her breasts, that he wanted to have sex with her, that he wanted to perform oral sex upon her, and that ‘she could make more money working at Hooters’" than at the company.  
  • In King v. Board of Regents of University of Wisconsin System, 898 F.2d 533, 535 (7th Cir.1990), the Court concluded that the defendant’s conduct rose to an objectionable level when he followed the plaintiff into a bathroom at an office holiday party, telling her that he "had to have her" and that "he would have her." Despite the plaintiffs protests, the defendant forcibly kissed and fondled her, stopping when the plaintiff’s boyfriend came into the bathroom. Id.
  • In EEOC v. Rose Casual Dining (d/b/a Applebee’s), (E.D. Pa 2004), the EEOC alleged that upon entering the party, the manager immediately approached the female employee and "grabbed her posterior while commenting on how good she looked. [The manager] then removed [the employee's] name tag and dropped it down her cleavage. [The manager] continued to pursue [the employee] throughout the night, grabbing her and making repeated sexual comments towards her. "  (Remarkably, alleges the EEOC, after complaining about the incident on the next day, the employee was fired three hours later because she "did not fit in.")
  • In Stathatos v. Gala Resources, LLC (SDNY 2010), a company client became "aggressive" towards a female employee, "grabbed" her repeatedly and "chased her" all night at the company’s holiday party.  When the employee allegedly asked for help from her employer at the party, he responded by saying "He likes you … he wants to date you."

Of course, holiday parties can also serve as the dramatic backdrop to announce harassment claims against a company as well.  For example, in Broxterman v. Falley’s Inc., (D. Kansas 2008), a secretary attended the office holiday party.  According to the court:

During the party, [the employee] went to the microphone and announced to all attendees that she was resigning her employment with [the company] because she believed that the company’s practices were ‘personally and professionally intolerable.’ According to [the employee], she announced her resignation in that manner in part to embarrass [her supervisor] and she testified that he turned ‘bright red’ at the announcement.

I’ve previously covered what steps employers can take to make sure holiday parties don’t turn into lawsuits in the new year here, here, here and here.  And Jon Hyman does a great job today recapping some additional tips for employers to know about office parties as well

But here’s probably the most important thing for employers to know: If you get a complaint about harassment at a holiday party, take it seriously and investigate promptly.  Holiday parties do not give employees a free pass to act inappropriately. While that may still occur, employers can reduce their liability by taking prompt remedial action to ensure that it is unlikely to happen again. 

UPDATE: We’ve since gotten a mention from Above the Law. Thanks! One of the blog readers has also added a suggestion on something to avoid as well — "Elaine Dancing" (with a shoutout to Seinfeld).  No lawsuits are known to have arisen from it, but that’s probably a good suggestion as well.