Throughout the year, and particularly during the holiday season, coworkers may be interacting socially off the clock. While employers do not have an obligation to monitor a worker’s off-the-clock activities, what happens between coworkers after hours can affect their employment. If coworkers get together during the holidays, whether at: a company-sponsored holiday party; a local pub; or a coworker’s house, sexual harassment of one coworker to another at that gathering could very well end the employment of the harasser the following work day.
Employers have an obligation to keep the workplace free of harassment related to a protected classes including gender, race, religion, age, and disability. If a worker decides to grope a coworker at the local pub and the victim of the unwelcome groping reports that to management the following work day, management, in order to keep the workplace harassment free, may need to fire the harassing coworker from the company in that the harasser cannot “un-ring the bell” as to his assault outside of work. It would be a mistake for coworkers to think that what they do on their own time is their own business when it affects other coworkers. Workers in this state start off with being employees at will who can be fired or quit with or without cause and notice. If the worker was a jerk off hours, being a jerk is not a protected class and he can be fired for it.
While gathering with coworkers, it is prudent to keep alcohol consumption down to a minimum in order to not lose your inhibitions. At a bare minimum, acting out of control in front of coworkers, even if you are not harassing them, can tarnish your reputation. Even though we spend much of our waking hours with coworkers, it is unwise to consider them as family, but rather team members which is more merit based with all members working towards a common goal. As such, you want your fellow coworkers to believe that you are reliable team member and getting out-of-control drunk shows weakness.
For those workers at holiday parties who are concerned as to what topics they should avoid, one clear topic that should be navigated very carefully is politics. There are strong opinions in this country on both sides in regards to the United States President and Congress. Having discussions about your political views with someone that you are not sure shares those views or having a conversation with someone who shares your political views, but is overheard by others who do not, can cause a rift between coworkers. At a bare minimum political disputes among coworkers makes for a less cohesive team and worse the dispute could dissolve into personal insults which is difficult to take back.
For private employers and workers, they should understand there is no First Amendment freedom of speech right in a private workplace. The constitutional right to freedom of speech prevents certain restriction on speech by our government, not our private employers. Private employers can, in many circumstances restrict speech with the exception of discussions among coworkers as to certain work-related issues which is protected under both state law and the federal National Labor Relations Act. Workers are able to talk amongst themselves as to why they think their boss is being unreasonable, their compensation is too low, or other work-related issues and cannot be fired or retaliated against for those discussions. However, while it is less likely that you will be fired for complaining to coworkers about your boss, in the real practical world it may be difficult for you to expect when your boss had heard of those conversations to get the career advancement you desire from a boss that knows you think he is incompetent or a jerk. Simply put, just because you legally can do something, does not mean you should in that one of the best ways for you to excel in a job is to make your boss look good. If your boss is incompetent or a jerk, it may be prudent to find a new job elsewhere while still employed.
In summary, in dealing with coworkers you should: be respectful; not become intoxicated at any social gathering with coworkers irrespective whether company sponsored or not; and steer conversations away from hot topics such as politics. Stay away from gossip about coworkers. We all like to talk about ourselves and are flattered that people are interested. If you are listening carefully, you can steer clear of particular issues of a worker’s personal life that are a source of stress for him such as an estranged relationship with his son or daughter. Your coworker on Monday morning will think of you as a more humanized individual whom he is comfortable talking to as a fellow team member and that should enhance the work relationship between the two of you and the team overall.
J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected].