Legal Issues – Sexual harassment and the Christmas party

While sexual harassment in the workplace has never been acceptable, in the latter half of 2017 it has been a veritable cause célèbre.

Much of the uproar was originally centred on Harvey Weinstein, a prominent film producer in Hollywood. An initial trickle of complaints, many from some top names in film, became a deluge as more and more women came forward to tell their story.

And that was just the beginning. Soon, further accusations were being levelled against others in an industry already notorious for its potential (and actual) exploitation.

Of course, issues of sexual harassment are not localised only to the American film industry. Every year the Employment Tribunal sees many claims of sexual harassment and discrimination, from men and women who have been subjected to similar behaviour.

However, it may be fair to say that the recent outcry has led to more scrutiny being placed on such matters.  Indeed, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has produced a new guide on the law regarding sexual harassment. Not only that, it has written to the chairs of the FTSE 100 companies, asking them to evidence what steps they are taking to combat sexual harassment in their own workplaces.

More specifically, it has asked those businesses to explain the safeguards against harassment that they have in place, how easy it is for employees to make complaints of harassment, and what steps they intend to take to combat harassment in future. The EHRC has set a deadline of 19 January 2018 for responses.

At the moment the EHRC has set its sights on the top echelons of business, but it may not be long before it widens its search and asks similar questions of smaller organisations.

Difficulties with harassment (whether sexual or otherwise) can become particularly relevant around this time of year. While many companies may pride themselves on being ahead of the curve on the subject, the addition of parties and (generally copious amounts of) alcohol can lead to significant challenges.

It would be a stretch to state that the consumption of alcohol turns every Dr Jekyll into a Mr or Ms Hyde, but having one glass of fizz too many can lead to employees saying things to one another that they normally wouldn’t and shouldn’t. It can also go further than that, with certain situations deteriorating into clear cases of harassment or inappropriate behaviour.

While we wouldn’t go as far as suggesting a dry party (for fear of mutiny), it may be worthwhile having a look over your internal policies on equality, harassment, bullying etc. to determine whether they still reflect the organisation’s values. If not, a refresh and reissue can be simple but effective.

It also doesn’t hurt to gently remind employees that a Christmas party is an extension of the workplace itself, and that any untoward behaviour will be addressed in the same way as if it had taken place at the water cooler.

The main risk for organisations is that they can be liable for the harassing acts of their employees. For that reason, making the parameters clear to everyone and taking steps if anything does take place can help prevent a hangover for the company, albeit perhaps not for the revellers.

If you have any questions on any of the issues raised in this article, or are concerned about any aspect of your own festive celebrations, please contact Seanpaul McCahill.

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