It’s that time of year again! As we roll into the holiday season, workplaces are gearing up for festive celebrations, including customary work holiday parties. These events are intended to foster camaraderie and team spirit. However, it is crucial to be reminded of the potential risks they pose, particularly concerning sexual assault and harassment.
Work holiday parties often provide a welcome break from the daily grind, offering employees an opportunity to relax, socialize, and celebrate the achievements of the year. It’s a festive atmosphere, and it should be enjoyed. However, the combination of festive spirits and relaxed environments can sometimes blur professional boundaries, leading to inappropriate behavior. Such behavior can put employees at risk of being preyed upon, leading to significant liability for employers.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits workplace discrimination, including sexual harassment. Title VII applies not only during regular work hours but also extends to work-related events, including holiday parties. Employers are responsible for creating a workplace free from discrimination and harassment, and this duty extends to off-site and after-hours events.
In the past, small employers (with fewer than 15 employees) in Texas might have avoided liability for sexual harassment claims stemming from these holiday events. Yet, due to a much-needed change in the Texas Labor Code, as of 2021, smaller operations can no longer avoid the responsibility of creating a safe party atmosphere for their employees. Whether an employer in Texas has one employee or one thousand employees, Texas law protects all employees from unwelcomed sexual harassment.
Aside from protecting employees from sexual harassment, employers must take action aimed at protecting employees when that behavior crosses the line from harassment to sexual assault. Non-consensual sexual contact or intercourse is a criminal act that includes, but is not limited to, rape, attempted rape, unwanted touching, and other forms of sexual coercion. Criminal penalties may apply to the perpetrator, but civil penalties may still apply to the employer.
Employers should take measures to protect their employees at events during the holiday season. They should create and communicate clear policies regarding appropriate behavior at work events. They should not only implement reporting mechanisms to encourage employees to come forward if they experience or witness inappropriate behavior but should also respond appropriately and take swift remedial action when those reports are made. Employers should never blame or retaliate against the victim or a reporting witness.
Victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault in the workplace – including work-sponsored events – should never remain silent. Remaining silent about sexual harassment perpetuates a culture of secrecy and enables the continuation of harmful behavior. Speaking out is crucial, as it sends a powerful message that such behavior will not be tolerated. Moreover, reporting instances of sexual harassment helps create a safer working environment for everyone, putting others on notice of the dangers present and shining a spotlight on employers when they have failed to protect employees and fail to respond to complaints appropriately.
Our hope is that you have a safe and enjoyable holiday season. However, if you are or have been subjected to unwelcomed sexual harassment or assault and want to know your rights, our lawyers are available for consultation.
Have fun and enjoy this holiday season! Celebrate successes and the end of 2023 and the newness of 2024. Just remember: (1) mistletoe at office holiday events should only be viewed as festive décor and not an invitation, and (2) martinis should be consumed with caution.