Employment law: Sexual harassment at the holiday party

This article was originally published by The Hamilton Spectator.

Please remember what you read here today after you’ve had a few drinks at your office holiday party. It might save you your job. First, just because office holiday parties take place after hours, it’s still considered to be in the context of your employment and your dirty dancing can lead to no paycheque. And before you start sending risque text messages to your colleagues who were at the party on your way home as you are sliding off your seat in the cab, think of Joe’s story.

Joe was the branch manager in a small company. When he arrived at the holiday party, he made a joke to somebody who commented that his hair was still wet. He explained that when a young female worker and her husband showed up to give him a lift to the party he had to rush out of the shower and was still a bit late. He knew he was going to be tardy and had rushed home and jumped in the shower. He joked that the female worker who picked him up was the youngest person to get his clothes off that fast in a long time. Apparently, he complimented her hair that night and allegedly touched it while doing so.

After dinner at a restaurant, they all went bowling. Joe was on the same team with this young female worker and her husband. When she was about to bowl, she commented that she didn’t think she could bowl at all. Her husband shouted that with a behind like hers she could do anything. Joe made the mistake of laughing and repeating the comment.

The young worker eventually complained but made it clear to management that she didn’t want Joe fired and she didn’t want an apology. She just wanted him to be more circumspect in his behaviour toward her in the future. Having recently adopted a brand new sexual harassment policy, everyone in management was gung-ho to put it to use and Joe ended up terminated.

The judge did find that Joe’s behaviour reached the level of sexual harassment but decided it was not significantly serious, given his good history, to warrant termination without a severance package.

He won his lawsuit. The court ordered that he be paid some severance. But he was still out of a job.

We hear about these cases because they end up in a courtroom in a fight over whether or not a severance package has to be paid. But that’s not really the big story. Either way, the employee is out of a job and even if they get some sort of severance, that does not pay the bills when the money runs out.

More importantly, nobody should be made to feel uncomfortable or harassed within their work environment. After a few drinks you feel warm, fuzzy and lovable. You think everything you say is funny and trust that people will take what you say in the spirit you meant it.

Alternatively, after a few drinks, something less benevolent in you comes to the surface and some of your true colours start to show.

Even if you don’t end up losing your job, without even intending it, you could do permanent damage to relationships in the workplace. We all value those relationships. They are part of our social network, our sense of identity and a source of support in the daily grind.

Have fun at your company holiday party, just don’t do or say anything that will make you want to avoid the next one.

A version of this column originally appeared in The Hamilton Spectator in 2012.

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Ed Canning
Ed Canning
P: 905.572.5809