It's that most wonderful time of the year. Mistletoe, eggnog and holiday parties in the office make employment lawyers rub their hands together with glee. That's because we get very busy in January after all the party-related firings. There's sexual harassment, discrimination, recriminations, finger-pointing – all the stuff of nice legal fees.
Here are the top things you absolutely should not do at the office holiday party if you don't want to be sitting across a table giving your deposition or reviewing your severance package with an employment lawyer in the new year:
- Drink too much: Drinking is the number one cause of post-holiday firings, hands down. Inappropriate behavior abounds once the inhibitions go down. Whether your inclination is sexual harassment, racial remarks, airing resentments, or dancing on tables, make sure you don't have more than a drink or two. Save the heavy drinking for the family party, where you'll need it.
- Confess: Don't confess your until-now-hidden lust for the receptionist, the fact that you were really in Rio when you took FMLA leave last year, or that the company never discovered your felony drug conviction in the Bahamas. A few drinks get some employees really talkative. Many are inclined toward true confessions. If you've managed to keep this stuff bottled up so far, keep it to yourself at the party.
- Post: If you've had too much at the party, for heaven's sake, don't post the party photos on Facebook, tweet about your makeout session in the supply room, or send love emails to your assistant.
- Harangue: If a coworker or subordinate says they don't want to come or can't come, don't pester or bully them into coming. They might have a disability or religious reason you don't know about. They might have a sick family member to care for. They might be a sexual harassment victim avoiding a harasser. If it's mandatory, the company may well have to pay employees for their time attending. The party has to be voluntary. Period.
- Bring an irresponsible guest: If your date or best buddy is prone to grabbing, racial remarks, fistfights, or other inappropriate behavior, don't invite them. Their behavior will reflect on you, and you will be blamed if something goes wrong.
- Drive drunk: Not only will you lose your license and possibly your freedom, but you might lose your job even if you don't go to jail. Many companies have mandatory disclosure if you have a DUI suspension or conviction.
- Mix medications with alcohol: If you're on medication, you'd better understand if you can drink while using it. You can probably be fired for your bad behavior even if it is because of a medication-related issue.
- Flirt: As much as you've had a secret longing for the guy who runs the copier or the Vice President of Human Resources, now is not the time to flirt, make suggestive remarks or, god forbid, get grabby. Even if they seem suddenly friendly after they've had a few drinks, that isn't an invitation to go for it. Sexual harassment allegations abound after office holiday parties. I don't care if they hung mistletoe. It's a decoration. Don't grab anyone and kiss them under it unless they're your spouse or significant other.
- Joke: That political, racial, religious, or sexual joke might seem funny now, but will it seem funny when someone reports it to HR and says they were offended? A joke that begins with anything like, "A rabbi, a feminist and a Hungarian walk into a bar . . ." should be removed from your office party joke book.
- Undress: If you dress provocatively, you're a sexual harassment magnet once the drinking starts. If your boss has been able to restrain himself or herself during office hours, that doesn't mean they won't be tempted at the party. Dress professionally and don't be overly friendly or flirtatious, especially with bosses. Why buy trouble? If you are sexually harassed at the party, you need to report it to HR as soon as possible. But if it's your boss doing the harassing, who are they going to believe? Try to avoid situations where you put yourself at risk.
Holidays are fun, and office parties should be too. If you use your common sense, act professionally, and don't do anything you don't want on the front page of the company newsletter, hopefully you won't be seeing the likes of my employment lawyer colleagues or me anytime soon. Ho ho ho!
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