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Sexual Harassment at Office Holiday Parties: Know Your Rights

A female employee stands alone at a holiday party.

Employers need to keep employees safe at work events.

It's the holiday season, and many employers in Ohio are getting into the spirit by celebrating with their employees. When done well, office holiday parties can be a welcome respite from the day-to-day of the workplace, not to mention an opportunity to hand out some well-earned bonuses. However, the environment of a holiday party can also lead to an increased risk of unlawful sexual harassment.

If you were sexually harassed at a holiday party or in any other work context, you need to know your legal rights and options. Our experienced employment law attorneys can advocate for you.

What is sexual harassment in employment?

In a work context, sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, whether verbal or physical. There are many types of conduct that can constitute sexual harassment, but they broadly fall into two categories:

  • Hostile work environmentthe unwelcome sexual conduct is ongoing and pervasive to the extent that it interferes with work. This may include unwelcome advances, sexualized jokes and innuendo, sexual imagery, and so on. You may have a claim even if you aren't the direct target of the sexual conduct; witnessing sexual conduct in your work environment can be enough to create a hostile workplace.
  • Quid pro quoliterally "this for that," this type of sexual harassment involves a supervisor or manager requesting sexual favors in exchange for a job benefit (such as a promotion) or under threat of a detriment (such as firing). While a hostile work environment is usually based on a pattern of behavior, quid pro quo only requires a single instance to be actionable.

Sexual harassment can occur in any work context. It can be committed by anyone, regardless of gender or place in the employer's hierarchy. However, the environment of office holiday parties makes sexual harassment more likely, especially if alcohol is involved.

Employers have a responsibility to prevent sexual harassment at holiday parties

Whether the holiday party is physically located at the office or offsite, the employer still has a responsibility to protect employees' safety during the event. Some of the precautions employers should take include:

  • Maintaining and enforcing an anti-harassment policy: Just having a policy on paper isn't good enough. Employers need to actually train employees, especially management employees, to avoid unlawful sexual harassment. The end of the year is an opportune time to renew sexual harassment training.
  • Limiting alcohol use: Intoxication can lower inhibitions and contribute to unwelcome sexual behavior. While there's an understandable desire for employees to have a good time at the office holiday party, safety and professionalism need to come first.
  • Setting expectations of professionalism: Employers should remind employees that the holiday party is still a work event, even if the atmosphere is more relaxed than the typical day at the office.
  • Training upper management to intervene: Managers have an elevated responsibility when it comes to sexual harassment: not just to refrain from engaging in harassment themselves, but also to spot the warning signs of unlawful harassment and intervene promptly to protect the victim.

What to do if you are a victim of sexual harassment

You need to take three steps if you believe you have been sexually harassed at work. First, document everything. Make sure you have a record you can depend on if legal action becomes necessary. Second, report it to your employer. Tell your supervisor; if your supervisor is also the harasser, then tell their supervisor or human resources. Reporting sexual harassment puts your employer on notice so they cannot claim ignorance later.

Then, talk to an experienced employment law attorney as soon as possible. Talking to a lawyer doesn't mean you have to take legal action; it's an opportunity to tell your story and find out about your rights and options. Give us a call or contact us online today for a free, confidential consultation with Gibson Law LLC.

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