Inappropriate conduct, what to do

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Q:  I joined a small tech company last fall.  We are fairly informal.  Very few policies or documents.  As we return to our workplace, with a hybrid schedule, I expect that we will also return to our happy hours on Friday.  One person buys beer and our employer springs for pizza, salads etc.  Most employees stay for the free meal and a few drinks.  There is one guy who I think will ruin this tradition though.  He usually drinks too much and becomes inappropriate, he shares jokes of a sexual nature, and makes many of us feel awkward.  We then avoid him at these events.  What should we be doing?  I am a manager, a new one, and I feel like I should be doing something but not sure what.

A: Your concern is valid, especially in today’s work environment.  Harassment and inappropriate conduct occur more often in our workplaces, than we may want to believe. There are signs prior to the behavior crossing the line.

You are right to be worried.  Your company is providing the space and picking up the bill for this Friday pizza gathering.  In most situations, employees would still understand that professional conduct is required.  However, alcohol often clouds judgement.  It sounds like your co-worker doesn’t understand that alcohol impairs his judgement.

Today, the lines between work and our personal life are blurred.  Employees work remotely.  They connect to each other on social media.  Most employers still expect employees to behave in a professional and respectful manner, whether sharing a pizza, or working on a project together.

The law does not limit where the harassment occurs.  Harassment can occur outside of normal work hours and outside of the office building.  Courts have consistently found employers liable for sexual harassment if the behavior (or some of the behavior) occurred during business travel or other work-related events.  Harassment can also occur electronically, via texts messages, email or other messaging apps.

The behavior you are describing sounds like it could be the basis for a hostile work environment claim.  In short, a hostile work environment is created when there is unwelcome conduct, of a sexual nature, while makes others feel humiliated or offended.  The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) may consider a number of factors when assessing whether the conduct outside the workplace constitutes sexual harassment for which an employer is liable:

  • whether the event at which the conduct occurred is linked to the workplace in any way, such as at an employer-sponsored function;
  • whether the conduct occurred during work hours;
  • the severity of the conduct;
  • the work relationship of the complainant and alleged harasser, which includes whether the alleged harasser is a supervisor and whether the alleged harasser and complainant come into contact with one another on the job;
  • whether the conduct adversely affected the terms and conditions of the complainant’s employment or impacted the complainant’s work environment.

Some of the examples you shared could be behavior identified as harassment.  Jokes and discussing one’s own sexual activities are two examples often outlined in harassment policies, as examples of unlawful behavior.

As a manager, you can be held liable for permitting inappropriate conduct to continue.  First, you should attempt to stop it in the moment.  “Hey Sam, stop.  Enough of the jokes, they are making me feel uncomfortable.”  Then, you should talk to your manager and/or Human Resources.  This behavior has to stop.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

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