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Harassment and Sexual Harassment at Work Events

With the Christmas season nearly upon us, workplace Christmas parties are starting to get their slot in the calendar. Whilst most people look forward to the opportunity to socialize with their work colleagues and to have an opportunity to celebrate all the hard work and business success, during the year, unfortunately in some cases they can become a breeding ground for unwanted or uninvited encounters that can often be situations of harassment and sexual harassment between colleagues.

It’s a good time for employers to refresh their company policies on company social events and their Dignity in the Workplace policies and protocols. Here’s some guidance notes that may be helpful as you start to plan your company festivities this year.

What is the Difference between Harassment and Sexual Harassment?

Harassment can be defined as ‘unwanted conduct’ that can appear in various forms including verbal harassment, physical harassment and intimidating behaviour.

Whereas, sexual harassment is similar in that it is ‘unwanted conduct of a sexual nature’, appearing as physical conduct of a sexual nature (unnecessary touching, body brushing), verbal conduct of a sexual conduct (suggestive remarks, unwanted suggestion of meetups outside the workplace) and written conduct of a sexual nature (persistent texts, emails or social media interactions).

How should employers prepare for Christmas Work Events?

No employee should be made to feel uncomfortable or unwanted attending out-of-office events. Whilst stating that the Christmas work events are a celebratory occasion, to prevent any form of harassment or unwanted incidents, employers should:

  • Provide a brief, via email or presentation, to all employees of the Company’s zero-tolerance to harassment of any kind on company property and at work events.
  • Encourage all employees to review the Company’s Dignity at Work Policy to reinstate the social etiquette that is expected at work events outside of working hours.
  • Remind their employee of the terms and conditions of their Anti-Harassment Policy, including the potential disciplinary consequences for any employee if found to be in breach of the policy.
  • Caution employees when using their mobile phones and social media during working events to respect their colleagues’ privacy, aligning with the Company’s Social Media Policy.
  • Reinforce the Company’s Alcohol and Drugs Policy that drunk and disorderly behaviour of a harassment or sexual harassment nature will not be tolerated at work-related events. Additionally, employees who chose not to consume alcohol should not feel pressured or uncomfortable at any work-related event.

What does the Law state about Harassment and Sexual Harassment?

There are three main pieces of legislation that protect employees from harassment in the workplace.

The Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 oblige employers to prevent harassment in the workplace. Similarly, the Safety, Health & Welfare at Work Act 2005 obliges employers to ‘prevent any conduct or behaviour likely to put the safety, health and welfare of employees at risk’.

In 2022, the WRC released the Code of Practice on Harassment and Sexual Harassment at Work, which entails practical guidance for employers and employees on how to prevent harassment and sexual harassment at work, and how to put procedures in place to deal with it.

If a Harassment Incident Occurs at a Work-Related Event, what Should an Employee Do?

An employee can either take an informal or formal approach when dealing with a harassment incident.

An informal approach would involve the affected employee going directly to the employee who inflicted the harassment, informing them their behaviour was unacceptable, unsettling or offensive. Understandably, if the affected employee felt uncomfortable coming into contact with that employee, they are then encouraged to raise it with their manager or with a contact person. It is also possible to raise the issue more formally.

The formal approach should be outlined in the Company’s Disciplinary Policy & Anti-Harassment Policy and will inform the affected employee about the procedure the company will follow once it has been alerted to the complaint, and what will be involved such as there may be a need to conduct an investigation into the matter and speak to witnesses as well as consider reviewing CCTV where relevant etc.

It is really important that the employees concerned are fully aware of the company policies that apply and the procedures that the company will follow.

At Voltedge Management, we understand the importance of updating policies in accordance with the legislation. Contact us at info@voltedge.ie or 01 525 2914 to learn more about how we can assist in updating your policies.

Moya Kilgallen, Voltedge Management HR Consultant

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