It’s that time of year again, Christmas is just around the corner. Many companies will be holding staff parties to celebrate this festive and joyous time of year. Employers and employees need to keep in mind that Christmas parties and work-related events are not merely occasions for festive cheer – they are extensions of the workplace.
Amidst the festivities, it’s crucial to address a serious concern that could overshadow the holiday cheer: sexual harassment. Below, we are highlighting a few important points that employees and employers alike should keep in mind in relation to sexual harassment, how to handle such situations during Christmas office parties, and essential steps for employers to safeguard their teams.
Sexual harassment is explicitly prohibited under the Equality for Men and Women Act, 2003 (Chapter 456 of the Laws of Malta) and the Employment and Industrial Relations Act, 2002 (Chapter 452 of the Laws of Malta).
It encompasses requesting sexual favors, unwelcome physical intimacy, or any conduct with sexual connotations. The behavior, which includes spoken words, gestures, or visual material, is considered harassment if unwelcome and reasonably perceived as offensive, humiliating, or intimidating.
It is essential to recognise that sexual harassment extends beyond jokes, banter or flirting; it constitutes harassment if it causes offence, irrespective of the perpetrator’s intent. Sexual interaction that is invited, mutual or consensual is not sexual harassment because it is not unwanted. However, sexual conduct that has been welcomed in the past can become unwanted.
Notably, a worker need not explicitly express objection for the conduct to be considered unwanted. In some cases, it may be evident that the conduct is unwanted, as it would plainly violate a person’s dignity.
Sexual harassment is not confined to a specific workplace setting; it can occur anywhere within the organisation, such as the canteen, toilets, staff room, or the office. Additionally, it can take place online, on social media, or by telephone or text as well as face-to-face.
Sexual harassment is not limited to the workplace. In the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) case Chief Constable of the Lincolnshire Police v Stubbs and other, the EAT considered that social gatherings involving officers from work either immediately after work or for an organised leaving party could be described as an ‘extension of employment’. The EAT held that an employer was therefore liable for the incidents of sexual harassment which occurred in these circumstances.
Picture yourself at a company Christmas party, engaging in light-hearted conversation with a coworker who has had a bit too much to drink. The conversation takes an uncomfortable turn, and the co-worker starts asking personal or explicit questions about your private life. Despite feeling uneasy, you might hesitate to express discomfort due to the social setting. Recognizing boundaries, asserting comfort levels, and addressing harassment can be challenging.
While obvious harassment may involve unwelcome physical contact, it is essential to recognise that sexual harassment can manifest itself in various forms, all of which can cause offense to the victim. Recognising red flags for sexual harassment is essential for both employees and employers. These may include inappropriate sexual comments, displaying sexually explicit material, suggestive looks, propositions, intrusive questions, dissemination of inappropriate rumours, and more. Being aware of these red flags empowers employees to handle such situations, and employers can proactively prevent them.
The impact of sexual harassment can be devastating, leaving the recipient feeling afraid, ashamed, humiliated, and undermined. It can lead to serious mental and physical health problems. Witnessing harassment can also be very upsetting and can impact the health and work performance of the individual. Furthermore, harassment can also have a major effect on an organisation, affecting both the performance and the morale of the whole workforce.
Employees facing sexual harassment should follow any internal procedures by lodging a complaint within the organisation. If the matter persists, employees may be entitled to pursue remedies before the Industrial Tribunal or the Civil Court, within any applicable stipulated timeframes.
Furthermore, harassing individuals at the place of work can lead to the offender being found guilty of a criminal offence.
A victim may also lodge a complaint before the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality (NCPE) in the case of sexual harassment.
It is advised that victims of harassment seek legal help before lodging such claims.
Employers play a crucial role in preventing harassment by implementing effective measures and a comprehensive anti-harassment framework. This framework should not merely set out information relating to statutory entitlements, but should also prescribe effective internal procedures and remedies.
Employers should be wary of the risks of harassment during Christmas office parties and should consider taking the following practical steps:
Maintaining a festive and enjoyable atmosphere during office holiday parties should not compromise the commitment to a respectful workplace. Employers must be proactive in preventing sexual harassment, recognizing that the workplace culture significantly influences the occurrence of such behaviors. By fostering a culture of inclusivity and taking practical steps, employers can ensure that everyone feels comfortable, respected, and valued during the holiday celebrations.
Mariella graduated from the University of Malta with a doctorate in law in 2005. She completed a master’s degree in ‘European Private Law’ from the La Sapienza, University of Rome, and was admitted to the bar in Malta in 2006.
Mariella is a people person – and it is this attribute which has really characterised and shaped her career.
Over the years, she headed the legal departments of several corporate services firms. Due to her skillset, she was also entrusted with managing and overseeing operations and human resources, where she gained technical and practical experience in various corporate, commercial and employment matters.
Her practical hands-on experience and insight perfectly complement Mariella’s technical knowledge of employment law, thus placing her in an ideal position to understand and advise employers and employees alike on various matters that may arise at the workplace.
Mariella is passionate about employment law matters and provides her clients with the highest-quality legal service to achieve the best possible outcome and resolve any employment law related issues and concerns.
Bradley graduated Doctor of Laws from the University of Malta in 2005 and was admitted to the Bar in Malta in 2006. He advises clients on various corporate, commercial, employment and regulatory matters, with particular focus on company and financial services law.
He has assisted clients in various corporate and commercial matters by providing company law advice and assisting in the implementation of corporate finance, restructuring, mergers and acquisitions and similar transactions.
Bradley has also advised and assisted investment funds, fund managers and other investment services providers, banks and financial institutions, on various legal and regulatory matters relating to the setting up, authorisation and ongoing conduct of their activities in Malta.
His practice also covers general employment law matters. Bradley’s experience in company and financial services law enables him to focus on various corporate and regulatory aspects of employment relationships. In particular, he advises organisations on the implementation of employee share option and participation schemes, the implications of business transfers on employment relationships, as well as relations with senior employees.
Karl graduated Doctor of Laws from the University of Malta in 2005 and was admitted to the Bar in Malta in 2006.
Karl has gained considerable expertise in technology law and regularly assists clients in relation to intellectual property issues, commercial contracts and ways to ensure compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and privacy laws. Whilst such matters used to be only given incidental importance when dealing with employment matters, they are now widely acknowledged to be vital in all employment relationships.
He is also regularly engaged by C-level executives to assist in negotiating employment contracts and settlement agreements.
Karl advises across a multitude of industries including technology; marketing; adtech; financial services; gaming; esports; consumer products; and media and telecommunications.