By Amanda C. Couture and Austin E. Smith, Ogletree Deakins
This is the season of pumpkin spice, crisp air, falling leaves, and costume parties. But as much as we love autumn, it brings its own set of workplace complexities—especially when celebrating Halloween. Below are a few tips for keeping Halloween festive and nonlitigious:
Employers may want to ensure that employees are not forced to wear costumes, pass out candy, or attend a Halloween party. Today, Halloween is largely secular, but some believe it has its roots in the religious holiday of All Hallows’ Eve, the night before All Saints’ Day. All Hallows’ Eve celebrations were influenced by ancient Celtic harvest festivals, such as Samhain. Several religions choose not to celebrate Halloween because of these roots in other traditions.
To avoid religious discrimination claims and prevent overall morale concerns for those who may not want to participate, an employer can convey that participation in office Halloween events is optional, not mandatory, and that retaliation against and harassment of people who opt out is not acceptable. Calling someone a “party pooper” or “poor team player” because he or she doesn’t feel comfortable participating in Halloween festivities—either because he or she does not want to be “spooked” or because Halloween traditions conflict with his or her religious or cultural beliefs—could expose an employer to liability.
If an employer allows employees to wear costumes to work, it can provide clear guidelines of what’s acceptable and specific examples of what’s not. For example, an employer can discourage employees from making racially and culturally insensitive costume choices as well as sexually suggestive outfits. Employers can keep in mind that employees dressed in the traditional attire of any ethnicity, as undocumented immigrants, or as Middle Eastern terrorists may face national origin discrimination accusations. In addition, some costumes could be considered racially insensitive and lead to race discrimination claims, such as wearing blackface or carrying nooses.
In addition, the office isn’t the place for provocative outfits, such as scantily clad nurse uniforms. Employees or third parties may make offensive comments or jokes to an employee in a revealing costume, and the costumes themselves may make other employees uncomfortable. Keeping the office PG should keep those concerns to a minimum.
Job-Specific Costume Concerns
Employers can encourage employees to think about context when deciding on a costume to wear to work. A waiter serving food while fake brains ooze out of his head is not appetizing. A hospital chaplain breaking bad news while she’s dressed as a unicorn is not very comforting. A schoolteacher diagramming a sentence while he’s decked out as a pack of cigarettes doesn’t send a great message to students. A bank teller counting change with a mask on could make customers uneasy. Even on Halloween, these combinations don’t work well.
Employers can make sure everyone understands that normal workplace rules about harassment and professionalism apply, even on Halloween. If complaints of harassment surface, employers can investigate them promptly and thoroughly.
Most importantly, Halloween is an opportunity to have fun, boost employee morale, and foster a sense of community in the workplace.