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At the risk of reinforcing the notion of lawyers and human resources professionals as being the “no fun” bunch, we offer some practical tips to avoiding the unsuspecting tricks employers may experience after treating employees to Halloween cheer.
First, while many will revel in the opportunity to wear a costume to work and to enjoy Halloween celebrations, keep in mind that not everyone shares that perspective. In fact, for religious reasons, some people eschew holiday celebrations of any sort, including Halloween. Be respectful of their beliefs and perspectives. Do not make participation in Halloween events mandatory and be sensitive to those who may, for religious reasons or otherwise, wish not to participate. Do not make them feel uncomfortable for exercising their right not to participate. Creating an atmosphere in which a person feels compelled to participate in a holiday celebration against their religious beliefs may provide support for a claim for discrimination and or harassment. The EEOC previously pursued this issue on behalf a Jehovah’s Witness who was fired for refusing to participate in a Halloween celebration despite informing her employer that her religious beliefs prevented her from participating in the event.
Additionally, while it may seem obvious to most, not everyone may realize that some costumes are offensive or simply inappropriate for the work place. So, for example, employees should avoid costumes that appear to parody religious or racial stereotypes or that are too sexy. You don’t want to offend any employee and you don’t want to face a claim that a costume constituted some form of harassment. The bottom line: if your mother would cringe if she saw you wearing the costume, it’s probably not appropriate for work. So off limits should be anything that is too revealing and anything that disparages a race or ethnicity.
Also not so obvious is the harm a costume may cause to the employee wearing it or to others. For example, a Cinderella gown with a long train may cause someone (even the person wearing it) to trip. Any resulting injury could support a worker’s compensation claim.
Employers celebrating Halloween in the workplace should consider providing guidelines on what kinds of costumes are appropriate and should make it absolutely clear that participation in Halloween festivities is completely voluntary. Happy Halloween!