By Edward Woodall

Consider the following holiday scenario that may be all too familiar. Your business had a stressful, but still profitable, year. You, as the manager, chose to have a small holiday party in December outside the office as a reward for the employees and a chance for them to let off some steam. The facility served alcohol and inhibitions were lowered. Although the party did not get out of hand for most of the crowd, many employees noticed Bill and Barb getting especially “friendly” and behaving inappropriately toward each other for a work-related setting. Bill is married, but not to Barb. Barb is Bill’s indirect supervisor.

A month passes, and rumor and speculation swirl around the water cooler. Ears are burning in January. Neither Bill nor Barb has made any complaint to anyone. In fact, they have not spoken about the party. They have also never before expressed any inappropriate behavior toward each other and have behaved appropriately since the party.

Unfortunately, many holiday parties and work settings in general can result in these types of dilemmas for management. In this case, your business conceivably has a sexual harassment issue or claim, but no one has made a formal or even informal complaint. If you do nothing about it, you could be seen as condoning the behavior. If you do something about it, others may accuse you of blowing it out of proportion and creating problems. Also, the rumor mill can be difficult to stop. As the boss, should you do anything?

The short answer in most cases is that inappropriate behavior and misconduct of any sort must be addressed by management. Failing to address misconduct of any kind increases the likelihood of it happening again. It also increases the potential liability of the employer for such behavior, especially when a supervisor is behaving inappropriately toward a subordinate. In possible sexual harassment issues, management may have a duty imposed by applicable federal and state laws to investigate and address the issue. Failing in such duty can result in significant liability for the business if a harassment, discrimination, or other claim is filed at a later date.

The real issue for management is not whether to address the misconduct, but to determine the appropriate response. Is an investigation warranted? Should a verbal or written warning be given? Should an employee be fired? Should training or counseling be required for the employees involved? Should the entire office receive training? The response will depend heavily on the facts of the situation. If you, as a manager, have one of these situations, the attorneys at Venn Law Group can help you assess the situation and determine the correct response. They can also help you prepare a written anti-sexual and unlawful harassment policy—a must have in today’s workplace—as well as a plan for employee training and policy enforcement.