Is the office Halloween party fun for all or fodder for lawsuits?
Remember when Halloween was about ghosts, witches and werewolves?
Halloween parties have always been challenging to employers. HR is used to following certain rules in the workplace concerning drugs, weaponry and other typically prohibited items, and these restrictions extend to Halloween costumes. At the same time, HR leaders are responsible for maintaining a fun, respectful workplace environment for all employees.
But today’s politically polarized atmosphere is bringing out some equally polarizing Halloween costumes. For example, seasonal retailers have already had to roll back costumes this year due to criticism.
Sensitivity continues to be at the forefront of the HR mission, especially considering the crucial role that inclusivity plays in the modern workforce. Here are a few things industry pros should keep in mind for Halloween celebrations this year.
Student group exposes racist Halloween costumes
An Ohio University student group sparked a debate over racially offensive Halloween costumes in 2011. The group, known as The Students Teaching About Racism in Society, or STARS, started a poster campaign showing a student alongside a picture of a person dressed in a Halloween costume that could be perceived as racist.
The campaign’s purpose was to initiate dialogue about culturally insensitive Halloween costumes and its effect on those targeted. The posters’ taglines were “This is not who I am, and this is not okay” and “You wear the costume for one night. I wear the stigma for life.”
Racist costumes reinforce stereotypes
Culturally offensive Halloween costumes often target these groups:
- Inuits, once referred to as Eskimos
- Native Americans, with feathers, tomahawks and moccasins
- African Americans in blackface
- Mexicans in sombrero hats and mustaches
- Asians in coolie hats and mandarin jackets
Costumes pose legal risks for employers
Culturally offensive Halloween attire is not only tasteless; it also exposes employers to lawsuits. Workers in legally protected classes, including ethnic, racial and religious groups; women; disabled persons; immigrants; seniors; and veterans, can be targets of discrimination. If offended, members of the groups can file discrimination complaints against employers for such offenses as creating a hostile environment and sexual harassment.
Setting rules for costumes is key
Employers can minimize the risk of being sued because of culturally offensive Halloween costumes by:
- Prohibiting Halloween parties altogether in the office
- Allowing workers to wear only animal ears, vampire teeth, witch’s hats or equally non-offensive items
- Reminding workers of no-tolerance policies
- Reinforcing previously established dress codes
When it's all said and done, planning a successful yet appropriate Halloween celebration is all about knowing how to have fun without having it at the expense of others. Or, as one of our favorite TV characters puts it:
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