Sexual harassment in the workplace has dominated the news in recent weeks. The alarming extent of claims of inappropriate conduct has, quite rightly, caused many organisations to reflect on their own culture and policies.
The imminent Christmas party season is a notoriously perilous time for incidents of sexual harassment. The office party should be a time for staff to relax after a year’s hard work, to celebrate shared achievements, and to bond as a team. However, alcohol, festivity and the blurring of professional boundaries can be a dangerous combination.
There is no shortage of anecdotes about inappropriate behaviour at Christmas parties. Common complaints include male bosses making unwanted advances or comments towards female subordinates; mischievous ‘games’ with unwilling participants, sexualised ‘Secret Santa’ gifts, and improper touching and kissing between colleagues. To some, it may seem like harmless fun but, to those concerned, it can cause significant distress and embarrassment.
Of course, sexual harassment is not just experienced by female staff. Men too can be sexually harassed, by women or other men. However, they are often reluctant to report it because it may not be considered ‘manly’ to do so. Indeed, the fear of ridicule from colleagues may be more intimidating than the sexual harassment itself.
Employers have a duty of care towards their employees. They must, therefore, take steps to prevent staff being exposed to intimidating, degrading, humiliating or offensive conditions at work. This also extends to work-related events, such as office parties. A business could face a claim if an employee is harassed by a colleague at a work event, so it is an issue that must be taken seriously.
Organisations should promote a culture in which sexual harassment will not be tolerated. They should communicate policies which set out the appropriate standards expected of staff. Grievance and disciplinary procedures should also be made clear, and managers should be trained to listen to and investigate, misconduct claims. Appropriate action should be taken, where necessary.
Most importantly, employees should be aware of how they conduct themselves with colleagues and how this behaviour may be received and perceived. This does not just apply at Christmas but at all times of the year. Fundamentally, we all have a responsibility to treat our colleagues with dignity and respect.
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