Sexual harassment – summer parties pose a risk too

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Workplace Christmas parties may have become synonymous with sexual harassment suits but employers shouldn’t let their guard down just because the snow’s thawed, says one labour lawyer – summer social events pose a legal risk too.

From barbeques and theme-park trips to sports days and social mixers, many well-meaning organizations will have hosted employee appreciation events in the summer – but good intentions aren’t enough always enough.

“While the employer's intentions may be good, the result isn't always a reflection of those good intentions,” says David Greenwood, a lawyer with Toronto-based firm Blaney McMurty.

“Employers can be held liable for unfortunate acts which occur at these social events, even if the acts were completely unexpected, unapproved or arguably beyond the employer's ability to prevent.”

McMurty pointed to a recent Ontario case in which one female worker made a string of serious allegations – suing her supervisor and employer for sexual harassment, sexual assault, assault, battery, false imprisonment, and mental suffering.

The 19-year-old woman alleges that her supervisor made frequent and unwanted sexual advances to her while they were both working at Ottawa-based waterpark, Calypso – behaviour which she says came to a head during the company’s end-of-season summer party when he eventually assaulted her.

The case is in its early stages but the judge recently determined that all charges against Calypso – with the exception of the sexual harassment claim – have some chance of success. The judge allowed the remaining charges to proceed to trial.

“Clearly no employer would condone the conduct which is alleged to have occurred at this event,” says Greenwood. “However, that does not mean the employer has no liability for those acts.”

According to Greenwood, some of the key factors influencing the judge’s decision were:
  • The assault took place during an unsupervised work function
  • The assault occurred on workplace property
  • The employer was either supplying or permitting the unsupervised and unregulated consumption of alcohol
  • The park was expansive and it was conceivable that the employee may find herself alone with the supervisor
The Blaney McMurty lawyer also offered advice to employers looking to reduce risk and improve employee safety during work-related social events:
  • Minimise “blind spots” – make sure the venue is one where it is unlikely that a small number of employees can go to be unseen
  • Limit the consumption of alcohol
  • Appoint senior managers to supervise the event or hire a third party to supervise such as bartenders or security
  • Make sure that all attendees have a safe way home – free cab chits, transit or bus service
  • Make sure the event does not take place at a location where there can be a higher than usual risk of personal injury
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