Many people in the Twin Cities area either have had or probably will be having their office parties or more informal work-related get-togethers in the upcoming days. Even for those who have already had them, this is a good time of year to think about social functions related to work in general.
Holiday parties and other social engagements at work are indeed often fun, and they can be a great way to show appreciation for employees. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, they can also be breeding grounds for sexual harassment and other forms of unlawful discrimination.
The fact that bad actions happened while employees were having a good time or under the influence is simply not an excuse that a Minnesota employer can use to avoid a claim of sexual harassment, whether the claim is based on a hostile work environment or otherwise.
While it is true that employers are not expected to prevent all inappropriate or off-color behaviors at an office party before they happen, employers do have an obligation to make sure that they’ve taken steps to prevent harassment at all work-related activities. This might include, for example, gently reminding all employees about appropriate behavior at an office party.
For those instances that do happen despite an employer’s reasonable efforts, employers must have in place, and actually follow, proper procedures for addressing the poor behavior effectively. In the case of an office party, this could mean promptly stopping offensive conduct and disciplining those who engage in it.
Although social functions at work are nice and usually well-intentioned, the rules against discrimination and harassment still apply. Depending on the severity, even one bad incident at an office party could leave a Minnesota employee permanently scarred and an employer responsible for that employee’s damages.