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Minnesota winter brings office parties and potential lawsuits

After surviving the recent snowstorm, where some areas of Minnesota reported 11 inches of snow, Minnesotans have once again acclimated to winter. Along with the snow, other signs of the holiday season are present, including shopping, holiday cookies, decorative holiday lights, even then annual Holidazzle parade.

For some Minnesota employees, this time of year also means attending an annual holiday office party. In fact, according to a recent survey of 105 companies by an executive search firm, 91 percent were planning to throw an office holiday party this year, up from 74 percent last year.

Although ostensibly a social event, holiday office parties also pose certain hazards, both professionally and criminally. According to some studies, 30 percent of employees have flirted with a coworker at a holiday party, and another 26 percent confessed to having shared too much personal information. Although such behavior may start innocently, it may be hard for some to gauge in the moment whether they have gone too far, venturing into unprofessional or even unlawful interactions.

Despite the protections offered by federal and state laws, employees may find themselves the victims of behavior constituting sexual harassment at their holiday office party. Intimate touching or comments of a sexual nature are always inappropriate at a holiday office party.

Yet even other office party behavior which may begin as less offensive can develop into subsequent interactions that cross the line. For example, in one case a male coworker left Post-It notes on a female employee's computer after making advances at a holiday party. Although the messages were small, they were too personal, prompting a sexual harassment complaint from the woman and ultimately resulting in his termination.

The best approach to holiday parties may be to view them as networking, rather than social events. HR professionals advise employees to treat such events as an opportunity to advance their career -- and their personal brand -- and to make adequate preparations accordingly. Specifically, a game plan might include a game plan on how to work the room, the types of conversations to have, and a set time to leave. The best impression will be made by appearances that are courteous, professional -- and short.

Employers might also plan for such events by distributing copies of the company's sexual harassment policy in advance of the event, as well as its policies on drugs and substance abuse. The policies could also be posted in break rooms or other public places.

For those workers unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of inappropriate behavior at an office holiday party, an attorney can advise them on their rights and a course of action.

Source: abcnews.go, "5 Tips to Avoid Getting Fired After Your Office Holiday Party," Edward Lovett, Dec. 5, 2012

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