Cheers to holiday parties with dignity and being free of sexual harassment  

Cheers to holiday parties with dignity and being free of sexual harassment  

We must all consider how we conduct ourselves around our colleagues; whether or not the Santa hats are on and the mistletoe is out.

As the excitement and fanfare around the Christmas ads begins to wane by late November, the anticipation for Christmas parties begins to grow.

People can let their hair down, blow off steam and have a couple of well-earned drinks after a year of hard work. And maybe force themselves on an unwitting colleague.

Picture the scene. The bright red and green Christmas lights have gone a bit blurry, the streamers are strewn on the floor with someone half-attached, tangled up in candy cane paper and laughing away. People are arm in arm singing Wham!’s Last Christmas. How lovely.

But someone else is sitting in a dark, forgotten corner, feeling awkward, unsure and unsafe. A colleague who has had far too much to drink is making inappropriate comments to them and overstepping their physical boundaries.

Sadly this is the kind of story that we’ve heard all too often: variations of Christmas party harassment hell.

While we’ve focused before on bystanders to harassments, and advice for those who have experienced it, the time to be clear is now. Our advice this Christmas is to those who might engage in inappropriate behaviour.

If you’re thinking of using a Christmas party as an opportunity to sexually harass someone. The first step is, just don’t. The second step is to read the below.

If you’re unsure of what constitutes sexual harassment, the same goes for you. Read the below, and you’ll avoid doing anything inappropriate.

By following these guidelines and being aware and inclusive, you can help to ensure that Christmas parties are enjoyable, safe, and free from sexual harassment.

Respect personal boundaries

This doesn’t necessarily mean explicit sexual contact. It also refers to acknowledging and respecting each person’s unique boundaries.

The safest approach is to refrain from physical contact altogether. However, if it’s necessary, consult a trusted friend or colleague to gauge the appropriateness of your actions.

Are you overly tactile? Do others perceive your gestures as inappropriate? If in doubt, err on the side of caution and avoid touching anyone you’re not entirely certain welcomes it.

Refrain from explicit conversations

A recurring issue highlighted in our training sessions is the discussion of explicit sexual encounters, describing what one might do sexually to someone, sharing stories about others’ intimate lives, or prying into others’ sexual histories.

In particular, this can be instigated by individuals identifying as heterosexual towards LGBTQ+ individuals. Many people find such discussions off-putting.

It’s best to keep these stories to yourself, especially in a professional setting. Share them only with those you’re confident won’t be offended.

Consider the impact of your words on others. If there’s even a slight chance that your words might make someone uncomfortable or threatened, it’s best left unsaid.

Be attuned to reactions

Consider others’ feelings and reactions. Are they displaying signs of discomfort? Are they avoiding eye contact, frequently checking the time or their phone, or searching for an exit strategy?

If you notice these cues, ask if your actions are making them uncomfortable. If they affirm this, don’t take offense. Instead, offer a sincere apology, modify your behaviour, consider leaving, or preferably, a combination of these actions.

As a last consideration, ask yourself if you’d act the same way with your CEO or company boss.

Balancing authority

Recognise the influence your seniority holds over your peers.

Most individuals aspire to succeed in their roles, granting senior members a degree of power and sway over them. This dynamic often pressures younger staff to acquiesce to actions they find uncomfortable or overlook issues they disagree with.

If you occupy a senior position, conduct yourself accordingly. Be mindful not to propose ideas that a junior colleague might reluctantly agree to due to perceived obligation.

Respect ‘no’ as a complete answer

When someone declines an invitation, accept it as their final word. If they repeatedly say “no,” understand that they genuinely do not wish to participate.

They aren’t playing a game to test your persistence. Forcing them into an activity they don’t want to partake in doesn’t enhance their enjoyment. It merely disrespects their boundaries. Let it go.

Consent hinges on an enthusiastic “yes.” Anything less should be considered a “no.”

If you suspect inappropriate behaviour…

If you’re uncertain whether your behaviour crossed the line, seek feedback on your actions. If you can’t approach the individual directly, consult others who were present.

If no other witnesses were available, handle the situation with sensitivity. If direct communication isn’t suitable, consider involving a third party, such as someone from HR, to facilitate the conversation.

Or call the NABS Advice Line for a confidential conversation, to help you figure out next steps. Additionally, review the list of potential examples of sexual harassment in our code to assess whether your actions align with any of them.

If it’s determined that your behaviour was unacceptable and caused harm, promptly offer a sincere apology and commit to changing your conduct. Avoid phrases like “I’m sorry you feel that way,” which shifts responsibility onto the victim. Instead, take full accountability for your actions.

Reflect on your behaviour and what led to these circumstances. Clearly outline how you’ll prevent this in the future, and be open to suggestions for personal growth and change.

This advice, whilst relevant to the upcoming holiday season, is not limited to Christmas parties, and we should all consider how we conduct ourselves around our colleagues; whether the Santa hats are on and the mistletoe is out or not. Ensuring everyone has a safe and enjoyable experience from desk to party.

Katrina Urban, head of learning and development at NABS and co-director of Learning & Development for Outvertising.

TimeTo’s mission is to foster a culture where sexual harassment is not tolerated, including for those who’ve exhibited inappropriate behaviour.

For more guidance, consult our code or reach out to NABS for confidential advice and support at 0800 707 6607 or support@nabs.org.uk

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