Sexual Harassment: The Uninvited Holiday Party Guest

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A young woman sits down to a company holiday dinner at a fancy steakhouse. She and her colleagues are downing cocktails. Suddenly she's pinned against a bathroom wall by an older male colleague. He’s kissing her, and more.

If she reports it to the police, the executive potentially faces arrest and criminal charges. In addition, both executive and firm face civil liability. If the evidence adds up, they’ll likely settle for an undisclosed amount.

Lisa Friel is former Chief of the Manhattan District Attorney's Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit, now Vice President, Sexual Misconduct Consulting & Investigations at T&M Protection Resources, LLC. "Whenever alcohol is present at work functions - whether it's the holiday party, a summer picnic or even a professional conference - there is a real possibility that employees will overindulge and behave in ways that are inappropriate and even dangerous.”

Sexual misconduct can occur at high levels and at unexpected moments, with dire consequences, financial, criminal and otherwise. Ask former IMF chief Dominique Strauss Kahn, or former candidate Herman Cain, whose alleged dalliances arguably cost both a chance to be President in their respective countries.

But sexual misconduct scandals are not limited to the political arena. The incident involving Mr. Cain occurred when he was CEO of the National Restaurant Association. The matter was ended by a secret settlement, a tactic often employed in the private sector in an effort to shut down a scandal.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports that in 2010, 11,717 sexual harassment claims were filed, yielding $48.4 million for claimants. That does not include damages awarded in lawsuits. Some experts estimate that only 5% to 15% of incidents are reported.

After the office holiday party, several employees continue the festivities at a local bar, where - after several rounds - the conversation turns personal. Trading stories about current and past sexual relationships, two senior managers begin posing off-color questions to the group, several of whom become extremely uncomfortable but concerned about how they'll be viewed if they don't play along.

Lisa Friehl, who advises universities, sports organizations and corporations on sexual misconduct says, “Sexual misconduct has no place at office holiday parties and can have grave consequences for individuals and organizations.

HP, Mitsubishi Motors U.S., Wal-Mart, Bank of the West, ABM Security Services, Lowe's, and FedEx are just a few of the major companies that have had to address sexual harassment claims in recent years. Hewlitt Packard’s CEO resigned following an investigation that found “no violation of HP’s sexual harassment policy, but did find violations of HP’s Standards of Business Conduct.”

In other cases damages reached into the millions.

A November 2011 Washington Post poll reveals that 69% of women and 59% of men view sexual harassment as a problem. One in four women report being harassed.

Seizing on the company’s holiday party as the ideal opportunity to chat up her superiors, a junior employee goes out of her way to make conversation with the boss. He's friendly and compliments her work at the office. Then he remarks on how much he appreciates her figure in that dress.

Ms. Friehl suggests that even well intentioned remarks can be a bad idea. Although a compliment might seem nice, a comment on someone’s body could prompt a complaint, which in turn could open an investigation.

Ms. Friehl offers five tips to help ensure that sexual misconduct does not crash the office party

1. Mandate annual training on sexually inappropriate behavior, including what employees should do if they witness it. Schedule training close to the holidays. If you don’t think people are taking it seriously, bring in an expert to scare them.

2. Alert employees that they are expected to drink responsibly at all office functions. This message should come from "the boss," whose behavior should serve as an example.

3. Invite spouses and significant others to events. Their presence often curbs reckless behavior.

4. Designate a senior employee to monitor events, and serve as a resource should the bartender need a third party to cut someone off. This person can also call taxis for employees who become overly inebriated.

5. Immediately bring in an outside expert should complaints of harassment or abuse surface, to advise on such matters as legal obligations. Their presence is also reassuring for concerned stakeholders within and outside the firm.

Clarification: An ealier version of this story did not clarify why former HP CEO Mark Hurd resigned. Mark Hurd resigned following an investigation that found “no violation of HP’s sexual harassment policy, but did find violations of HP’s Standards of Business Conduct.”

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