While sexual harassment that takes place at work may clearly be deemed improper, it is important to be aware that behavior such as unwanted physical touching, sexual solicitations or requests, or inappropriate comments may be in violation of the law even if they do not take place in the workplace. Holiday parties, corporate retreats, and after-hours drinks are examples of common situations in which employees are often subjected to sexual harassment.
Employers may be responsible for sexual harassment that takes place at offsite work events, such as holiday parties, especially when they are made aware of the improper activity and fail to take corrective action. It’s an employer’s responsibility to maintain a work environment (which includes off-site work events) free of unlawful activity.
If you are at an office holiday party, it is still potentially unlawful and improper for a colleague to engage in unwanted sexual advances, physical touching, remarks of a sexual nature, etc. It also may be illegal for a supervisor to demand a date or a romantic/physical relationship from an employee in exchange for career advancement (known as “quid pro quo” sexual harassment). Additionally, it may be illegal for a supervisor to threaten an employee’s job or potential for career advancement should they refuse his or her demands. Even if such a relationship is already taking place, it may be illegal for an employee to be fired because he or she wishes to end the relationship. It is also important to note that even if the sexual harassment was a one-time occurrence at a holiday party or off-site work event, you may still have a claim.
A complaint made about a coworker’s or supervisor’s unwelcome sexual solicitations is considered a “protected activity.” It is unlawful for an employer to subject an employee to an adverse/negative employment action due to his or her participation in a protected activity, as that would constitute retaliation (such as termination, demotion, suspension, etc.). For example, if an employee complains about sexual harassment to Human Resources, or to a person with supervisory authority, an employer’s retaliation for lodging said complaint is unlawful. Failure to lodge a formal complaint may, in some instances, harm one’s claim of sexual harassment or retaliation. If you are experiencing workplace sexual harassment, you may want to consider expressing your concerns to your employer. In the unfortunate event that you are experiencing sexual harassment at work, or even outside the workplace, and your concerns or complaint are left unaddressed, it may be beneficial to speak with a qualified sexual harassment lawyer who is experienced in employment law.