Workplace Holiday Parties

‘Twas the week before Christmas

And all through the land

Holiday parties served up claims

Fist over hand

The averments were stated

In legal pleadings with care

In hopes that generous jurors

Soon would be there

The lawyers were nestled

Smugly in stuffed chairs

With clients alleging

Unwelcomed gropes and stares

Okay, this blog update is not penned by Ebenezer Scrooge, nor is it meant to be construed as “The [F]right Before Christmas.” Nonetheless, it is common knowledge that workplace holiday parties often are adorned with things that, like reindeer pulling a sled, can haul employers before courts in the New Year.

Festive outfits, bouncy music, tasty treats, and flowing libations all packed into an informal and playfully decorated setting are aimed at promoting cheer and good will. But such circumstances also can lead to inhibition and generate well-meaning but potentially offensive comments (e.g., those concerning the physical appearances of attendees), along with misconstrued flirtations or invitations. Such parties also may stir the occasional unwanted touching of coworkers – especially those who say they were unaware that they were standing under the mistletoe.

Indeed, over just the past five years, at least ten California civil appeals have involved alleged misconduct at a holiday party that played a role in spurring the lawsuit. Allegations in those cases ranged from seemingly mild comments about a person’s perceived weight loss to more problematic recommendations that an employee wear tighter clothes. They also included holiday costumes depicting offensive words, holiday skits laced with racial stereotypes, holiday gift exchanges involving presents rife with sexual overtones, and provocative invitations or requests to sit on Santa’s lap, not to mention other suggestive innuendo. Oh, and then there’s the would-be Grinch who instructed a subordinate, allegedly on the basis of a protected characteristic, to answer company phones while the other employees frolicked and played in the Eskimo way.

So in this joyous season, we do not mean to haunt you with the ghosts of lawsuits past or present, nor do we aim to cleanse your workplace of future holiday parties or to replace laughter and good cheer with bah-humbug grumbles. We merely encourage employers to celebrate responsibly and to take reasonable steps to make such events enjoyable for everyone. At the same time, we wish all of our subscribers a wonderful holiday season and a happy and prosperous 2012!