Are you allowing your employees to dress up as ghosts, goblins and ghouls this Halloween?  Celebrating Halloween in the workplace is a “treat” but employers should be aware of the risks.  Here are some “real life” workplace horror stories:

Religious Discrimination: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) sued a company for firing an employee, who was a Johavah’s Witness, for allegedly refusing to participate in a Halloween-related event.  According to the EEOC’s complaint, the employee informed the company that her religious views prohibited her from participating in celebrations, including a Halloween-related carnival being held at a local mall.  When the employee refused her assignment to participate in the carnival, the company fired her.  The company never responded and the court entered a judgment for $33,435.02 in the employee’s favor.

Racial Discrimination: In 2007, a senior Homeland Security Department official made headlines when she and two other managers voted an employee’s costume to be the “most original” at the agency-sponsored Halloween party.  The costume consisted of dreadlocks, dark makeup and prison stripes.  After receiving complaints from other employees, the official apologized to her staff stating that a few costumes at the party were inappropriate.  The official was later placed on leave until she made several formal apologies and her qualifications were reviewed by a Senate committee.  See Committee on Homeland Security Report on the incident.

Sexual Harassment: An employee won damages for mental anguish in a sexual harassment case against her employer (unpublished case).  The harassing actions included an incident on Halloween where the employee came to work in a doctor costume, and the harasser, her supervisor, “gestured to her by unbuckling his pants and telling her, ‘Here Doctor. It hurts here[,]’ while pointing to his groin.”

Workers’ Compensation: An employee sued her employer for workers’ compensation damages after she fell off a stool at work and fractured a rib when a co-employee wearing a Halloween mask frightened her (unpublised case).  The parties stipulated that the injuries were compensable but litigated the extent of the employee’s damages.  In another case, a sorority “house mother” left the sorority house to purchase supplies for the sorority.  Several blocks from the sorority house, she stepped on a curb – which had been greased by some Halloween pranksters – fell and broke her hip.  The house mother sued the sorority and compensation was awarded.

If you decide to celebrate Halloween in the office and permit employees to dress up in costume this year, consider providing guidelines on what kinds of costumes are appropriate and not appropriate.  You may also want to reflect on last year’s Halloween celebration and identify any other risks to address prior to this year’s Halloween.  Wishing you a horror-free Halloween!