Workplace

Is your office party safe or an invitation to harassment? Here’s how to tell

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Heading to the company holiday party? Before you go, there are ways to tell whether you’ll be reasonably safe from sexual harassment.

Employers hosting events have been warned for years to take down the mistletoe and to keep an eye on who visits the bar too often. This year, employers are on notice that inappropriate behavior won’t be ignored anymore.

Sexual harassment complaints have toppled Hollywood CEO Harvey Weinstein, HBO series star Kevin Spacey, Today show host Matt Lauer, comedian Louis C.K., journalist Charlie Rose and many others. This “complete onslaught of sexual harassment issues” has changed the environment, said Jim Holland, managing partner of Fisher Phillips’ Kansas City law offices.

“Women have accepted a lot of stuff that in today’s environment, they’re saying, ‘You know what, I don’t have to put up with that and I shouldn’t have to put up with that,’ ” Holland said.

Holland advises companies on ways to help prevent bad actors from exposing the company to legal liabilities. He acknowledges that there are no new cautions this year, just that employers are hearing them from a new perspective.

Taking the employee’s point of view, such checklists offer a test for whether the boss has gotten the message and it’s safe to stay and enjoy the festivities.

▪ Look for a preemptive strike on bad behavior, such as a pre-party reminder to employees about the company’s harassment, alcohol use and non-discrimination policies.

▪ Did the invitation include spouses, or possibly whole families, to keep the atmosphere friendly instead of too friendly.

▪ How freely does alcohol flow? An open bar means there are few constraints on drinking, which lowers inhibitions and contributes to poor judgment. A cash bar or drink tickets can moderate consumption and behavior.

▪ Find out whether the bartender is a hired professional who checks IDs on guests who don’t appear to be substantially over 21 and has orders to report those who’ve had too much.

▪ Ask one of the managers: were they advised to be “on duty” and to keep an eye on subordinates’ behavior?

▪ Limiting hours limits the partying. For example, an official ending time at 9 or 10 p.m. avoids an all-night revelry.

Holland said the location of the corporate event — at work or at a different location — doesn’t change the sponsoring employer’s liability potential. But others say it can change how employees behave.

“As soon as you introduce alcohol at an off-site activity, peoples’ guards are dropped,” said Ed Yost, manager of employee relations and development for the Society for Human Resource Management. “It’s presumed to be a less formal, more social environment.”

Yost said he typically patrols the group’s holiday party to see whether he needs to break up any uncomfortable situations such as inappropriate touching. He said he’d also follow up by talking with the person responsible.

Holland said he takes a similar role.

“I’m the one who usually sits and watches,” he said.

More employers intend to skip the alcohol than plan to serve drinks at holiday events this year, according to a survey by consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Its survey of 150 human resource officials found that 49 percent of party planners were serving alcohol this year, down from 62 percent last year and 54 percent the year before that.

And that’s just how Challenger’s advice runs.

“One way to create a safer environment is to limit the guest list, hold the party during the workday and avoid serving alcohol,” the firm’s announcement of the survey results said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Mark Davis: 816-234-4372, @mdkcstar

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