As we gear up to enter the silly season, we feel the need to bring up something of great importance – the office Christmas party! While often setting out to be a great way to reward all staff for their hard work over the year, and a chance to unwind as work finishes up, the office Christmas party has the potential to turn into something more sinister: a sexual harassment complaint.
We have seen and investigated many Workers’ Compensation claims and workplace investigations arising from office Christmas parties or other work social functions, and think it is important to share some concrete definitions and ways to avoid these issues.
Firstly, it is important to note that sexual harassment is usually defined in your organisation’s workplace Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination Policy. However, for the purposes of this article, sexual harassment in the workplace is any unwanted or unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature where any reasonable person may anticipate this conduct would make you feel offended, humiliated, or intimidated. Examples include:
– staring or leering
– unnecessary familiarity, such as brushing up against you or unwelcome touching
– suggestive comments or jokes
– insults or taunts of a sexual nature, including wolf-whistling
– intrusive questions or statements about your private life
– displaying posters, magazines or screen savers of sexual nature
– sending sexually explicit emails or text messages
– inappropriate advances on social networking sites
– accessing sexually explicit internet sites
– requests for sex or repeated unwanted requests to go out on dates
– behaviour that may also be considered to be an offence under criminal law, such as physical assault, indecent exposure, sexual assault, stalking or obscene communications
An important component of sexual harassment is how the person being allegedly harassed perceives the conduct, and not how the alleged harasser intended the comments or actions. Oftentimes, a harasser will attempt to lessen his or her actions by saying they were ‘just joking’ – this does not mitigate any findings of sexual harassment.
Of course, Christmas functions in particular are often rife with opportunities for sexual harassment complaints, particularly when alcohol is involved and everybody is feeling relaxed and ready to kick their feet up at the end of a big year. However, we have one suggestion in particular that we think is of vital importance to protect staff and company image:
Give your function a start and end time.
Having a concrete start and end time, written on a tangible invitation to all employees, guarantees that all staff are aware of the expected beginning and end of the function, ensuring two things. First, any incidents that may occur during ‘work time’ can be witnessed and appropriately dealt with in line with the organisations policies. Second, the organisation can be sure it has met requirements regarding responsible service of alcohol and appropriately looking after its employees.
If you have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, you can make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission or your workplace. Likewise, if you witness someone being sexually harassed in the workplace, you can make a complaint on their behalf with their consent.