With the holiday season fast approaching, employers must plan and prepare for the general revelry that accompanies this time of year. Holiday parties, which often involve the consumption of alcohol and frequently occur outside of the physical workplace, present distinct risks for employers. Institutions of higher education (IHEs) may face unique challenges surrounding these events given the close relationships that faculty regularly develop as a result of working and living on or near campus. To maintain a safe, respectful, and healthy work environment, IHEs should consider reviewing a variety of policies and practices contained in their employee handbooks as well as employee policies that may be implicated by holiday-related events. Reviewing the policies and employment practices outlined below may help IHEs keep their workplaces holly and jolly through the new year.
Anti-Discrimination and Harassment Policy
In addition to reviewing anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies for compliance with requirements under applicable federal, state, and local laws, IHEs should ensure that their policies make clear that unlawful discrimination and harassment is prohibited in the workplace, at work-related functions, and outside of work if it affects the workplace. Any training related to discrimination and harassment provided for employees and department heads or other managers should also clearly breakdown where such conduct is prohibited and who can engage in the prohibited conduct.
When at IHE-sponsored events, employees may feel that they can let their guard down when outside of the physical workplace and are more likely to engage in conduct that is otherwise inappropriate or unlawful. Offsite holiday parties are particularly susceptible to this form of misconduct because they often involve activities, like drinking alcohol, playing games, and/or dancing, during which there might be decreased inhibitions and closer contact among co-workers.
By expressly including references to such work-related functions and outside work events in anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, IHEs prevent potentially problematic behaviors from going unreported merely because employees believe they fall outside the scope of relevant employer-policies and procedures. Catching such conduct in settings outside of the workplace early can also allow IHEs to correct or remediate problematic behavior as appropriate, based on the substance of any complaints received and investigations conducted, before it physically enters the workplace or becomes more serious or pervasive.
Workplace Romance Policies
Holiday parties and offsite work-sponsored events also have the potential to lead to workplace romances. To address romantic relationships before they arise, IHEs can craft either a policy on romantic relationships or reference romantic relationships in an existing "conflicts of interest policy" in their employee handbooks.
Workplace romances have the potential to lead to discrimination, harassment, or retaliation claims, particularly if a relationship ends badly or when they implicate complicated power-dynamics in supervisor/supervisee situations. For instance, an employee may claim that they were targeted after ending a relationship with a co-worker or supervisor. Such relationships may also lead to claims of favoritism or actual or perceived conflicts of interest if between supervisors and subordinates, which can harm employee morale and implicate other conflict policies. Accordingly, IHEs want to make clear their stance on these relationships to all employees at the outset of their employment through a formal written policy.
In a workplace relationship policy, IHEs may consider strongly advising against romantic relationships among co-workers and/or prohibiting romantic relationships between individuals in the same department or in a direct reporting structure. Such policies may also require one or both employees to disclose the relationship to a member of Human Resources or other appropriate personnel and may incorporate having the employees sign a statement acknowledging the relationship. For example, placing an explicit duty to report in writing on the more senior member of the relationship may assist with assuring that a report will actually be made and the relationship is handled appropriately.
Finally, within the actual policy, IHEs will want to reserve their right to take appropriate actions in response to any romantic relationship reported, especially if such relationship creates the appearance of or gives rise to an actual conflict of interest. Responsive actions may include the reassignment of one or both employees or termination of the employees, depending on the policy adopted and the circumstances at issue.
Though effectively handling workplace romances can be tricky to navigate, specifying how they will be addressed, including the extent to which they may be discouraged or prohibited and whether they are required to be disclosed, can make the situation unfold much more smoothly. However, while it is important for IHEs to develop written policies on romantic relationships, it is even more pivotal to ensure that such policies are administered consistently any time a relationship arises. If an IHE fails to follow its own policy, this may subject the IHE to a claim of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.
Drug and Alcohol Use Policies
As referenced above, many holiday parties and other events around the holiday season involve the consumption of alcohol. While IHEs may not want to prohibit outright such consumption, they should ensure that they prohibit inappropriate conduct and are insulated in the event that an employee overindulges whilst celebrating.
IHEs can accomplish this objective by crafting a drug and alcohol workplace policy that generally prohibits bringing on to their premises, having possession of, being under the influence of, using, consuming, etc., any form of alcohol during working hours, whether or not physically at the worksite. Yet, IHEs can include a carve-out that alcohol may be permitted in moderation for authorized social activities or events. The key is to make clear that only limited consumption is appropriate for a work setting.
IHEs may also reiterate their stance on drug and alcohol use, including appropriate use during a sanctioned event, in any code of conduct. One or both policies can help ensure that employees understand that outrageous or inappropriate consumption of alcohol will not be tolerated, even in the name of "good fun" or the holiday spirit.
Employers with questions regarding the policies and procedures addressed in this article, or who would like assistance reviewing employee handbooks, are invited to contact the authors of this article or any other attorney in Venable's Labor and Employment Group.