United States: Treating Employees To Halloween Fun Can Be Tricky

Last Updated: October 30 2018
Article by Jaclyn Gross

Seyfarth Synopsis: Halloween is lurking just around the corner, and workplace festivities may present unusual challenges. Unsafe or offensive costumes, religious discrimination, and harassment are among the issues potentially facing employers around this time of year. Here are some tips to avoid the tricks and enjoy the treats.

Exorcise Your Right to Have Fun

It's not uncommon to allow employees to dress up when Halloween falls on a weekday, but without proper guidelines, it can quickly lead to complications. Employers should urge employees to be mindful when choosing costumes that they are still expected to comply with any workplace anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. If the workplace typically requires a dress code, employers permitting Halloween costumes should announce that, while employees may dress up, they should utilize sensible judgment.

Employees should be reminded to avoid costumes that poke fun at a particular culture, that are overly sexy, or that relate to a particular religion, as employees with differing backgrounds or beliefs may take offense. Political costumes can be contentious as well, especially when, as is the case this year, Halloween occurs just before Election Day.

There are also special considerations with costumes when it comes to certain environments. For instance, costumes for healthcare professionals working with patients that conjure thoughts of death or injury, and excessively scary costumes in places catering to children, should be reconsidered. These concepts ought to be applied to any guidance pertaining to decorations as well.

If You've Got It, Haunt It

Halloween often prompts individuals to dress provocatively, which, in many cases, is probably against the company's dress code. However, previous sexual harassment cases demonstrate that sometimes a costume doesn't need to be overtly suggestive to elicit inappropriate comments.

This issue is particularly crucial given the recent spike in #MeToo lawsuits and several incoming California laws aiming to strengthen enforcement of sexual harassment laws and make it easier for victims to pursue civil claims. Therefore, employees should be reminded that, regardless of a coworker's Halloween attire, there's no excuse to make statements that would otherwise be unacceptable.

Oh My Gourd

While Halloween is largely celebrated as a secular holiday, religious discrimination can still be a concern, and employees should not be penalized for opting out of the festivities. This has been a common issue for the EEOC with respect to Jehovah's Witnesses, who do not observe certain holidays. For example, this was previously addressed when an employee was fired for refusing to participate in a workplace Halloween party, after notifying her employer that it was against her religious beliefs to do so. Additionally, due to its pagan roots, some employees may believe Halloween to be a celebration of death or the occult, and take offense to any pressure to join in.

The Fair Employment and Housing Act and the California Workplace Religious Freedom Act both prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, and require employers to accommodate employees' religious practices and observances. Some employees (such as those who practice Wicca, for example) might consider Halloween to be a religious holiday, and request time off from work. Notably, FEHA protections apply to more than just the traditional, more commonly recognized religions, so long as the employee's beliefs are "sincerely held." To avoid running afoul of these regulations, employers should have a plan for responding to such requests.

Let's Get This Party Startled

An important, but easy to overlook, concern is the potential for costumes to create a safety hazard. Loose-fitting costumes or those with pieces that hang away from the body can be dangerous to employees working with heavy machinery or driving a vehicle. And, even employees' innocent attempts to frighten coworkers can end in injury. Employers who wish to avoid workers' compensation claims and complaints filed with CAL/OSHA should remind employees to dress with safety in mind.

Finally, there is also a risk that certain costume pieces will result in employees feeling threatened. A realistic replica of a weapon can cause panic and accessories that can be used as a weapon may cause fear and actual harm. In order to protect the physical and mental safety of all employees, employers should discourage costumes involving weapons.

Workplace Solutions: Employers should feel free to allow some Halloween fun at work, as long as employees are made aware of expectations to comply with company policies, respect their colleagues, and maintain safe working conditions.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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