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Employers: Beware of Sexual Harassment Issues at Holiday Parties

Now that the holiday parties have started, it becomes more important than ever for employers to educate themselves on sexual harassment.

Since employers can be on the hook if an employee sexually harasses another, what should employers know about what is, and isn't, appropriate? Thomson Reuters' Accounting Web has some pointers on this. But first, let's look at the concept of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment constitutes any unwanted and unwelcome sexual advance. It includes conduct of a sexual nature which interferes with the performance of a person’s job or creates a hostile work environment.

While determination of sexual harassment is based on the facts and circumstances of a particular case, it all boils down to the reasonable person standard: i.e. whether a reasonable person would have believed the conduct to be hostile, abusive, or offensive.

As Accounting Web points out, an isolated case of inappropriate sexual behavior at a holiday party could lead to a huge headache for the employer, even if the legal odds are slim for the victim. In one case cited by Accounting Web, the gifts exchanged at a holiday party lead to sexual harassment claims, when these gifts included edible underwear and a blow-up doll.

One suggestion to avoid holiday mishaps is to host an alcohol-free event. This minimizes the company’s liability and the risk for inappropriate sexual behavior.

It’s also wise to have an end-of-year policy refresher leading up to the party. This refresher would remind employees on what constitutes inappropriate behavior. Specifically, a policy should be in place on gift exchanges, forbidding any sexually suggestive gifts.

Holiday parties can be fun, but one small mishap could cost an employer in the hundreds of thousands.

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