Tuesday 24 September 2019

Niamh Horan: 'How to flirt in #MeToo Christmas party season'

You've got your Rudolph ears on and the eggnog is flowing, here's how to avoid any #MeToo mishaps, writes Niamh Horan

The party season can be tricky in this #MeToo era. Just what is acceptable and what is not can be difficult to determine. Stock photo
The party season can be tricky in this #MeToo era. Just what is acceptable and what is not can be difficult to determine. Stock photo

How do you flirt at your Christmas work party? It was once all so simple. A bat of the eyelashes, a coy little smile, and perhaps a gentle touch of your suitor's arm to let them know you were smitten.

But, alas - the days of natural seduction are long gone.

If you want to flirt, now you have to ask first.

That's according to Melanie Crowley, head of the employment law and benefits team at Mason Hayes and Curran, who along with her team have acted in scores of sexual harassment cases.

She has seen too much to tell people to follow your heart - and your hormones - without offering a word of caution. "If in doubt," she says, "don't make a move.

"And if you want to flirt with someone, ask them first, just to be on the safe side."

Melanie Crowley. Photo: Jason Clarke Photography
Melanie Crowley. Photo: Jason Clarke Photography

You mean literally ask a person: "Can I flirt with you?"

"Exactly," she says.

If that doesn't send a shiver through your bones this winter season, then you are staying ahead of the PC posse.

But if it's enough to knock the jingle out of your bells, then it's probably best to follow Melanie's advice to avoid appearing before your bosses the morning after the night before with the party out of your popper.

Here is a simple guide to navigating your Christmas party in the #MeToo season:

Can you tell a person that they look good in what they are wearing?

Absolutely! One employee can tell another employee that they look good in what they are wearing. When it goes beyond that, it can get tricky.

One employee telling another employee that they look 'hot' or 'sexy' isn't necessarily sexual harassment, but it could be.

It all depends on how the employee at the receiving end takes the comment.

If the person finds it offensive or feels that it amounts to sexual harassment, then it is offensive.

Can you put your hand on a person's arm or hip or their back in a friendly manner during a conversation?

Yes, you can. The definition of sexual harassment includes acts of "physical intimacy" but only acts of "physical intimacy" which are unwelcome or could reasonably be regarded as sexually offensive, humiliating or intimidating.

The definition specifically refers to unnecessary touching, patting or pinching or brushing against another employee's body.

This extends to sexual advances, propositions or pressure for sexual activity, continued suggestions for social activity outside the work place, unwanted or offensive flirtations, suggestive remarks, innuendos or lewd comments.

Unwanted flirtations? So can you flirt with a colleague and how can you know that your advances are wanted - until you make your move?

We all have friends, family members and neighbours who met at work. (One in five people now meet their partner at work, according to recent figures.)

Flirting might be OK if it is welcome and well received.

If, however, an employee gets any sense that the flirting is not welcome or is told that it is not welcome, it should stop immediately.

This might kill the romance, but, if in doubt, ask: "Can I flirt with you?"

Can you give a sexually suggestive secret Santa gift?

No. I think we have probably gone beyond the point where they are appropriate. Even if not offensive to the recipient, the gift will likely be offensive to someone else on the team.

Is it ever OK to ask someone for a kiss under the mistletoe?

Probably not the best idea in a work context.

It could be taken as sexual harassment although, again, I appreciate the stats around the number of people who meet their life partner at work.

Can you hook up with a colleague, a boss or a subordinate at your Christmas party?

Most organisations that I have come across don't prohibit inter-office relationships. What they do require, however, is that if a manager and a subordinate become involved that it is disclosed, so as not to create any actual or perceived conflicts when it comes to promotions, salary reviews, bonuses etc.

Can you keep buying a colleague drinks during the night even if they are tipsy or drunk?

I think that is more a moral question than a legal one.

What is banter and when does it cross into inappropriate humour?

Unfortunately there is no clear answer to this question. Where the line is between banter and inappropriate behaviour is very subjective. It depends on the recipient. What I consider to be totally fine could be the exact same as what the person sitting next to me finds offensive.

Can you have Christian or religious symbols on display at a Christmas party?

My view that Christian or indeed any religious symbols have no place at a Christmas party. In fact, many employers now don't even have Christmas parties because of the religious connotations and prefer instead to refer to "Holidays".

Do workplaces have to provide non-alcoholic drink options?

Absolutely! It would be highly unusual to have no soft drinks available, particularly considering the drink-driving laws.

In terms of data protection and social media, can you post photos online of colleagues without their permission?

If this is being done for purely personal purposes then no permission is required. Things can become more complicated when someone's online activity is a mix of personal and professional - in those cases, it can often be better to err on the side of caution and not post the photos.

Legally, do employees with certain food allergies have to be catered for?

The answer is probably yes. We have an incredibly broad definition of disability in Ireland, which could extend to a food intolerance.

And, finally, can you wear a skimpy or sexually suggestive outfit to your workplace Christmas bash?

As an employment lawyer, I don't have a view on this. As a female professional, I do. You can probably guess what that is.

I won't even ask about sitting on Santa's knee...

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