Last year, nearly 76% of companies planned to hold holiday parties. This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, only about 23% of companies are planning a year-end celebration, and 74% of those will be virtual events, according to a survey done by Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
This big drop will likely amount to fewer sexual harassment incidents, which are common at work parties where alcohol is flowing. But it's highly unlikely that there won't be any cases at all—even in a virtual setting.
Yes, sexual harassment can happen at virtual parties.
Work policies don't stop at an employee's doorway. Even in a virtual setting, colleagues must abide by a code of conduct, just as if they were in the office. This includes virtual holiday parties, whether or not they fall between the hours of 9 and 5.
Since drinking alcohol may be allowed or even encouraged, colleagues should stay professional, the same as they should at an in-person event. They should also be reminded that being under the influence is not an excuse for inappropriate sexual conduct of any kind.
One tip is to keep all interaction visible. Many video meeting platforms have a messaging feature, allowing attendees to chat in private. Ignoring this feature will leave one less opportunity where you could potentially be a victim of sexual harassment.
What to do if there's an incident.
Whether an incident occurs virtually or in person, document what was said or done and by whom, then report these incidents to your human resources personnel—as soon as possible. Reporting is best done in formal writing, but email works also.
Always keep a copy of your written complaint for future reference. In Georgia and other states where only one-party consent is necessary to record, you should absolutely record the incidents if you are able.
Remember, it is illegal for your colleague to retaliate against you for putting them (or the police) on notice for sexually harassing behavior that they were responsible for preventing.
At Barrett & Farahany, we hope your holiday season is merry and trouble-free. But if you find yourself a target of sexually harassing behavior, please don't hesitate to reach out. One of our experienced attorneys will welcome your call and will help you determine what steps you should take to protect yourself and your job.