It’s that time of year where employers throw Halloween parties and accept employees wearing Halloween costumes in the workplace. Halloween is a fun way to play dress up and pretend; but it’s also a really good way to create lasting problems in the workplace. Attorney Robin Shea writes about Halloween-related employment problems from the employer’s perspective in her excellent Employment & Labor Insider blog. I thought it might be a good idea to write on the same subject from the employee’s perspective.
The obvious issue for Halloween is the costume selection of employees who choose to wear costumes and that will make up the bulk of this discussion. Many people think “What’s the big deal? It’s just a costume.” It is a costume–on Halloween. When you wear a costume to work the idea of that costume lingers on after the holiday. This isn’t a bar where you are surrounded by your friends plus lots of strangers you won’t see again. You have to live with how the costume folds into your identity in the workplace. That can affect how management perceives you (which in turn can affect promotions and raises), give other employees excuses to harass you and complicate claims of harassment in the workplace.
We’ll weave these ideas into the discussion as we go. Let’s talk about some bad decisions with Halloween costumes at work.
Sexy Costumes and Sex Discrimination Claims in Texas
Adult costumes, especially for women, have becomes more adult over the years. Not only is there less and less fabric involved in the costumes (to the delight of my single years) but with the reduction in fabric has come a reduction in consideration for where these costumes are appropriate. Nowadays it seems like any costume for women has been transformed into a sexy costume. I’ll let Barney Stinson, America’s favorite pick up artist explain:
Look, these costumes are perfectly fine at a party or a club if that’s your thing. They are rarely appropriate for the workplace. Sure, if your workplace is a club then it’s probably fine. However, it’s usually not appropriate for an office with a business casual dress code. If the skirt length, tightness and neckline are inappropriate the rest of the year then they are also inappropriate for Halloween.
Sexual harassment waiting to happen in Texas
Let’s have a moment of honesty here. These sexy costumes are intended to draw sexual attention. You’re going to get it. It may not come in a manner or from the coworkers you would prefer; but once you volunteer yourself for that kind of reputation it’s going to last. The problem is when you later complain about the sexual attention the Halloween costume is almost certainly going to come up as a reason why the harassers thought it was ok. And although the costume doesn’t excuse unwanted sexual attention in the workplace, to prevail on a claim of sexual harassment you have to show that you were personally offended by the harassing conduct. If you show up at work in a sexualized costume then it is much more difficult to convince a judge or jury that you really thought the conduct you suffered at work was really that offended.
Of course, sexy costumes are not just for women. There are some sexual costumes for men and the same rules apply. This isn’t as widespread as women in sexy costumes but it is no less a problem when you decide to show up at work as a shirtless construction worker or a superhero in entirely too tight of spandex. For men it is more likely to be a costume with a sexual identity without necessarily making reference to the man’s body. The ever-present pimp costume is the archetype of this costume. Why would you ever think it is acceptable to dress up like a man who sells women’s bodies for money (unless you are, actually a pimp by day)? It isn’t. You might not be the target of sexual harassment with these types of costumes; but you can be accused of creating a hostile work environment with it.
Shocking Costumes and Racial Discrimination in Texas
There’s also plenty of costumes meant to shock or offend people for the sake of humor. These are also a terrible idea for the workplace. If the costume is intended to offend then it’s likely to accomplish its goal at your job. Here’s some subjects to stay away from in a costume you want to wear to work: anything related to a terrorist organization; anything related to a hate group; a Hitler or nazi-related costume; anything related to a religious figure–especially if it is not your religion; costumes of a particularly gory or violent appearance; anything abortion-related; anything that looks like the sexual anatomy of either sex; or anything else with an overtly sexual identity; anything alcohol related (unless you work in a workplace with a lax attitude towards alcohol); and anything intended to offend another ethnic group.
Feel free to roll the dice in other settings with these kinds of costumes. In the workplace these costumes can do as little as ruin your reputation with management or colleagues or as much as invite complaints of harassment. A particularly offensive costume could invite your termination under the employer’s zero tolerance policy on workplace harassment.
Costumes that Relate to an Ethnic or Racial Group
Sometimes people think it’s a good idea to dress up like a person from another ethnic or racial group. I don’t mean dressing up like a particular person, just a stereotypical identity of somebody from that group. Sometimes these costumes can be intentionally overt in its racist message. These costumes are never acceptable in the workplace and really, shouldn’t be acceptable anywhere. Dressing up like a black guy implies there is something unusual or different about black people and necessarily treats them like a different class of people in the workplace.
It also necessarily requires the use of stereotypes to identify a person of a different group as something different from you. Just don’t do it. It’s a different issue if you want to dress like a particular person from a different ethnic or racial group. However, be careful about how you go about it. Definitely leave out any kind of face paint or other physical alteration. That kind of costuming carries an unpleasant stigma and could easily make a harmless costume very harmful.
But for Those Who Do Not Celebrate Halloween…
Some people do not celebrate Halloween for religious reasons, such as certain evangelical Christian groups and Jehovah’s Witnesses. If you are among the people who do not celebrate Halloween on a religious basis then your employer may not require you to engage in Halloween celebrations, nor can you be harassed for declining to dress up or participate in the festivities. It is religious discrimination to require an employee to engage in that type of conduct as a condition of employment or to harass an employee on the basis of religion. Although employees enjoy protections from religious discrimination that requires them to participate in Halloween festivities, it does not go so far as to protect employees who want to use the opportunity to criticize others for celebrating the holiday.
Although evangelizing may be a component of one’s religious beliefs, criticizing others for having different beliefs can be a form of harassment to those other people and the employer may find that conduct disruptive to the workplace. Going too far down that direction can find you unemployed with little in the way of protections. Anti-discrimination laws are not free passes to do anything you wish in the name of your religious beliefs.