December means many things at workplaces in New York. For many workers, one aspect of the December calendar is the annual company holiday party. For some, these parties are wonderful times to engage in fellowship with friends. For others, though, these parties are fraught with risks and justifiable concerns about being the target of sexual harassment. Whether your employer's holiday party was on-site or off-site, the law protects you if you endure sexual harassment, especially if the harasser is a supervisor or someone else in a position of power. For answers to your questions about sexual harassment and holiday parties, get reliable answers by consulting a knowledgeable New York sexual harassment lawyer.-
New York court opinions are replete with holiday parties that seem like something from an old-time mature slapstick film (or, for the victims, a nightmare.) In one horrifying instance from a 2010 holiday party, a female dental school employee alleged that the school's associate dean fondled her, chased her around a table, pushed her and a female colleague together then told them to kiss, and stuck his tongue in her ear.
A more recent harassment case involved A.L., a managing director at a banking and financial conglomerate. As Forbes reported, the director allegedly encountered sexual harassment in multiple places, including the employer's trading floor and the company holiday party. At one party, a senior executive walked A.L. to her apartment and asked her to come inside to use the bathroom. Once inside, the executive sexually assaulted A.L., according to her lawsuit.
The Impact of the Ending Forced Arbitration Act
Changes in the law have given New York workers like A.L. more power than they previously would have had. Many of these workers signed arbitration agreements in which they agreed to submit employment-related disputes, including sexual harassment, to arbitration (as opposed to litigating those disputes in civil court.)
A new federal law passed in 2022 (the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act) ended that, barring employers from shunting sexual harassment cases like A.L.'s into arbitration without the worker's consent. This potentially helps victims in multiple ways. One is that a civil court may present a more favorable setting to achieve a fair result. Two, details of arbitration proceedings are not public records; details of civil lawsuits are. This second element is at least as important as the first for workers whose goals include exposing misconduct and the bad actors who committed it.
Several factors can help strengthen your harassment claim arising from your employer's holiday party.
- Were there activities that potentially encouraged harassment? (Risque games or holiday items with problematic connotations (like mistletoe) could bolster your position that the employer implicitly sanctioned -- or at least turned a blind eye -- to illegal harassment.)
- Was your harasser your supervisor or someone with authority over you? (If they were, that also can be a major benefit to your case when it comes to holding your employer liable.)
- Was the party on-site or off-site?
Holiday party harassment need not occur on employer property for you, as the victim, to take action and obtain compensation. As the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stated, a "hostile work environment claim may include conduct that occurs in a work-related context outside an employee’s regular workplace." The EEOC narrated an example in which an employer hosted an annual holiday party at a private restaurant during which an employee drank "to excess and at the end of the evening attempts to grope and kiss" a coworker.
As the EEOC explained, even though the party (and the harassment) occurred outside the employer's work site, outside business hours, and at a private establishment unconnected to the employer, the victim still had a potential harassment claim because the misconduct occurred in "a work-related context."
Employer holiday parties should be events filled with festivity and fellowship, not harassment and horror. If you have encountered sexual harassment at a company holiday party -- whether the party occurred on your employer's property or off-site -- the law potentially allows you to hold accountable those responsible for the harm you suffered. Part of doing that means having skillful legal counsel on your side. The experienced New York sexual harassment attorneys at Phillips & Associates are here to help. No one should have to put up with unwelcome conduct simply to pursue their profession. You can contact our experienced attorneys online or by calling (833) 529-3476 to set up a free and confidential consultation. Get in touch today to get us started going to work for you.