Halloween in the workplace? Bah! Humbug!

When it comes to Halloween in the workplace, just call me Scrooge.

Scrooge.forwardstl.flickrCC
Halloween costumes at work? Bah! Humbug!

A reader writes,

Hi, Robin. I dread the prospect of employees coming to work in inappropriate Halloween costumes. I've seen costumes that are sexually provocative, or that reflect racial or ethnic stereotypes. Some people even say that employers shouldn't have Halloween parties because some employees have religious objections. Can you write about this before Halloween?

Sure, and thank you for suggesting such a great topic for this time of year! There is very little from the courts on "Halloween in the workplace," and for that we can all be grateful because it probably means that it doesn't get litigated too often. I did find one case from a federal court in Pennsylvania in which a woman claimed that she was discriminated against for refusing to attend a "mandatory" employer Halloween party. The woman was a Jehovah's Witness, and believed that Halloween parties were sinful. (The court dismissed her claim because she hadn't raised it in her EEOC charge.)

Even though there isn't much court guidance, here is my question: Why let employees wear Halloween costumes to work at all? The costumes become more indecent by the minute, increasing the risk that someone will either be sexually harassed because of a costume, or will be considered to be sexually harassing co-workers because of a costume. Even costumes that are not meant to be sexually provocative may still be very inappropriate for the workplace . . . for example, a ballerina costume (too much bare leg, shoulder, and arm), or a "superhero" costume (waaaaaaay too much like underwear).

Ballerina.Male.Chris Millett.flickrCC
This prima ballerina is showing too much skin for the office.

In addition to being provocative, as my reader points out, many Halloween costumes may be considered inappropriate for racial, ethnic, or religious reasons. Or they may be too gory, violent, and disgusting for work. (I'm thinking of the classic axe-in-the-head mask.)

In addition to that, Halloween costumes may present safety issues. (What if that pointy witch's hat gets caught on some machinery?) They may make it harder for employees to get their work done. (You'll get that green ghoul makeup all over your keyboard! And do you know how hard it is to take a business call while you're wearing a Tor Johnson mask?)

You'll shoot your eye out, kid! Get off my lawn! Bah! Humbug!

And why on earth would an employer ever require an employee to attend a Halloween party, especially if the employee's reason for not attending was a religious one?

OK, OK, I admit - I really do like Halloween. Even at work. I owned a pair of skeleton earrings that I wore to the office every Halloween until they broke a couple of years ago. I don't see any harm in putting out a bowl of candy corn in the break room, or even in throwing a little party as long as "conscientious objectors" are excused with no penalty. But that's about it for me, for the reasons stated above.

Underwear Ad.SenseiAlain.flickrCC
"Aw, gee, Maw -- that underwear looks just like a superhero costume!"

Now, what about employees who may be offended by any celebration of Halloween? This can include some evangelical Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses, and possibly others. Don't feel like you have to ban the festivities, but don't mandate participation, either. If employees can opt out without penalty, that should be accommodation enough.

Are we all ready for next Friday now?

Speaking of parties, I'll be doing a webinar on November 12 for XpertHR on "How to Make Your Workplace Holiday Party Sparkle - With No Legal Hangovers." Please join us as we talk about that other big holiday that causes employer headaches. (Ho! Ho! Ho!)

Image credits: All from flickr, Creative Commons license. Ebenezer Scrooge by forwardstl, ballerina by Chris Millett, 1960s Hanes Underwear ad rephotographed by SinseiAlan.

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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