Should Halloween Give Employers Nightmares?

Picture of a lighted jack-o'-lantern to show that Halloween is scary.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

It is that time of the year again. The time when some companies will have Halloween celebrations that involve employees dressing up in costumes or engaging in office antics. Halloween is one of the most dangerous times for employers because of the possibility of various forms of liability that they may face. The celebrations can cause issues related to religious discrimination, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and other office problems.

Halloween May Contribute to Religious Discrimination

Halloween is one of the most interesting holidays for religious discrimination claims. Some groups may view Halloween as involving demons and claim that they cannot participate in any Halloween parties because they are Christian. On the other hand, Wiccans (of which there are approximately more than 700,000 in the US) may feel that any office celebration is a way to make fun of their religious beliefs.

Some Christians may Refuse to Participate

Some, not all Christians, may view Halloween as a demonic activity that is completely against their beliefs. If the employee is a Jehovah’s Witness or some other religion that does not celebrate Halloween, then you should not force an employee to participate. Forcing an employee to participate could cause a religious discrimination case. While Title VII, the law protecting employees from discrimination, only applies to companies with 15 or more employees, many state laws have a lower employee threshold. However, even if a company’s employees are not protected under the act, does any company really want to be known for engaging in religious discrimination?

Wiccans may View Some Office Banter as Discrimination Against Them Based on Their Religion

Some groups may view the holiday as an important day for their religion and request the day off. If an employee is Wiccan, then you should allow them to have October 31 off. You also need to be careful and sensitive to how other employees treat Wiccans around Halloween. It is important to be sensitive to the needs of these employees. If anyone makes fun of an employee for their beliefs, then you need to react and protect those employees. Many people are not familiar with the Wiccan religion, which can cause other employees to make fun of them. It does not help that Wiccans use the pentagram/pentacle as a holy symbol and the inverted pentagram/pentacle is associated with Satan by Christians. The similarity between the two makes it easy for Christians and others to feel attacked because they misunderstand the beliefs of the Wiccans. It is imperative to act quickly to defuse a situation regarding this or other misunderstood Wiccan beliefs. There is at least one instance where this has caused a lawsuit against a company.

Halloween, Racial Discrimination, and Megyn Kelly

Many people are not aware of what is and what is not appropriate to wear during Halloween. Take Megyn Kelly’s comments about blackface. Here is what Megyn Kelly said:

But what is racist? You truly do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface at Halloween or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. That was OK when I was a kid, as long as you were dressing like a character.

Don’t listen to Megyn Kelly. It’s not ok. No employee should use blackface for their costume or otherwise purposefully dress themselves up to look like another race for a Halloween party.

There is one case (Nichols v. Grand Trunk W. R.R., 1999 BL 5415 (Mich. Ct. App. Dec. 21, 1999)) that used employees dressing up in blackface and chains to support the plaintiffs’ claims of racial discrimination. The plaintiffs were ultimately not successful because their claim had passed the statute of limitations (it was too late for them to sue). However, both the case and the incident involving Megyn Kelly clearly demonstrate the danger of allowing employees to dress with blackface to look like a member of another race for Halloween. They could seriously offend someone and subject them to an environment where they would experience racial discrimination.

What to Do If Your Office Has A Halloween Party

Can you still have an office Halloween party if someone could be offended and sue? Yes, you can have a party, but you should take certain steps to minimize the risks of a lawsuit or offending employees

  • If the company allows employees to dress up, then you should prohibit employees from wearing anything that has naughty or slutty in the title. No one needs to come dressed to work in anything inappropriate. Participation in dressing up or the party should always be voluntary. The normal workplace dress code that employees are expected to dress professionally and avoid anything that can be deemed offensive should still apply. In today’s current environment, I would also prohibit employees from bringing plastic guns or other items that could appear threatening to an employee. Employees should also be prohibited from dressing as anything political as this will cause office problems. Halloween and any holiday should be a time for employees to have some fun at work. It should not be a time for additional issues.

 

  • Some employees will always view a party as a way to test the boundaries of what is permissible. They may make inappropriate jokes to employees. Supervisors and managers must be aware of any instances where an employee makes any statements that could be considered to be sexual harassment and take immediate corrective action.

 

  • When given a chance to have some light fun, some employees will abuse the opportunity. If an employee is caught playing a trick on another employee or otherwise engaging in inappropriate workplace behavior, then you need to discipline the employee.

Conclusion

Halloween can be a great time for employees to relax and prepare for the upcoming holiday season. Employees still need to be aware that the normal rules apply to the workplace and they cannot engage in behavior that would be sexual harassment, racial discrimination, or religious discrimination during the holiday.

The information provided in this blog is for educational purposes only and is not legal advice. If you need legal advice, then you should speak with a lawyer about your specific issues. Every legal issue is unique. A lawyer can help you with your situation. Reading the blog, contacting me through the site, emailing me or commenting on a post does not create an attorney-client relationship between any reader and me.

The information provided is my own and does not reflect the opinion of my firm or anyone else.