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Can Halloween Parties Increase the Risk of Discrimination and Harassment Claims?

October 21st, 2021
Halloween party discrimination

Workplace Halloween parties are meant to give employees the chance to blow off some steam, socialize with co-workers, and access their inner child by dressing up in a silly, funny, or creative costume. Some employers kick off the Halloween party with a costume contest, where employees try to outdo each other by coming up with the most creative, spooky, and outrageous costume. Although workplace Halloween parties can be a great opportunity to boost morale, the event can quickly turn from celebratory to downright scary if employees wear inappropriate or offensive costumes or behave badly after consuming too much alcohol. Unfortunately, this type of scenario can increase the risk of harassment and employment discrimination claims. Although workplace costume parties are a treat for Halloween enthusiasts, there are some tricks that employers should keep in mind if they want to prevent frightful behavior and avoid harassment and discrimination claims.

What Risks Should Employers Keep in Mind When Planning a Halloween Party?

Every year, employees file Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI) claims against employers as a result of events or behaviors that occurred at a workplace Halloween party. EPLI is a type of liability insurance that covers claims made by employees. Oftentimes, EPLI protects businesses from unfounded claims made by disgruntled employees. To avoid these claims, it is important to understand the risks that businesses face when hosting a Halloween party, either in the office, at a restaurant, or in the banquet room of a hotel. The following are examples of potential risks that employers should keep in mind when planning a Halloween party, or any work-related event:

  • Inappropriate costumes. Halloween costumes can become problematic if they are in any way offensive. Even a seemingly innocent costume can be discriminatory toward a protected class. For example, if an employee dresses up as a stereotypical elderly woman, an Army veteran, or an Native American, this can violate the rights of employees who are part of that protected class. Dressing up as Jesus, the Pope, or a nun can expose employers to liability for claims of religious discrimination. In addition, employees should avoid wearing any type of costume that is too revealing. A good guide is to steer clear of any costume that is labeled as sexy. One way to prevent employees from making poor costume choices is to set a Halloween dress code that clearly specifies what is acceptable and what is not. There are endless examples of costumes that are not offensive or discriminatory in any way.
  • Harassment issues. When alcohol is flowing freely and employees’ inhibitions are down, a Halloween party can become a nightmare for employees who are the object of another worker’s bad behavior. Prior to any kind of work event, including a Halloween party, it is a good time to review the company’s harassment policy with the entire staff.
  • Risks associated with alcohol consumption. When alcohol is served at an office party, there is always the risk that someone is going to have one too many cocktails and say or do something that is offensive or inappropriate. That can range from telling off-color jokes to making unwanted sexual advances toward another employee. Since it is often difficult to limit the amount of alcohol that employees consume at a Halloween party, this may be reason enough to reconsider hosting this type of event.
  • Employees’ diverse religious beliefs. Just like any other holiday, there may be employees who do not celebrate Halloween. In fact, some cultures and religions consider Halloween to be a pagan or sacrilegious holiday. As a result, they may choose not to participate in any workplace festivities. If an employee is criticized or made to feel uncomfortable for his or her beliefs, this is considered discriminatory behavior. Employers must respect all workers’ beliefs and take the necessary steps to ensure that their rights are protected.
  • Violence in the workplace. Unfortunately, if an offensive costume or an unwanted sexual advance escalates into a heated argument, a workplace Halloween party can become violent. When establishing a Halloween dress code, make sure that employees do not wear costumes that include toy or real weapons as costume props, as this can only increase the risk of violent behavior, particularly when employees involved in an argument have had too much to drink.

How Should Employers Prevent Religious Discrimination Claims?

It is important to keep in mind that there may be a number of employees who do not participate in Halloween activities because it violates their religious beliefs. To ensure that a company-sponsored Halloween event does not prompt claims of religious discrimination, employers are urged to take the following steps:

  • Explain that the event is meant to be a secular celebration, and not connected to any religion.
  • Recognize the fact that not all employees celebrate Halloween, and make sure that those employees know that they are not obligated to attend the party, dress up in a costume, or participate in any aspect of the Halloween festivities.
  • Prohibit employees from retaliating against another employee for refusing to participate in a Halloween event or activity.
  • When decorating the workplace for the Halloween party, avoid using decorations that may be seen as religiously charged. For example, instead of using demons, ghosts, or skeletons, use spiders, pumpkins, and black cats. Employers may want to consider an autumn harvest festival in which all employees can participate, rather than a Halloween party where there is a greater risk of bad choices and questionable behavior.

What are Examples of Sexual Harassment at a Workplace Halloween Party?

When employees are dressed up in Halloween costumes and the party has an open bar, coworkers and employers may feel emboldened to say things or make advances toward another employee that they would not do during a regular workday. Unfortunately, women are particularly vulnerable to unwanted sexual advances, although men can be victims as well. The following are examples of scenarios that can result in a sexual harassment claim:

  • A female employee dressed up as Catwoman is talking to a group of coworkers when her direct supervisor interrupts the conversation, standing very closely to the female employee. After initially glaring at her for wearing a costume that is very tight-fitting, he reaches over and puts his hand on her backside. Clearly, this was unsolicited and unwanted behavior of a sexual nature. It is a violation of the female employee’s rights that are covered under the Title VII employment discrimination claims.
  • A male employee comes to the workplace Halloween party dressed up as Superman, including a cape and tight spandex bottoms. While he is sitting at the bar waiting for a drink, his manager sits next to him, looks him up and down and says, “I’d like to see what is under that costume. If you show me, you will get that bonus we talked about.” This is clearly a blatant violation of the employee’s rights and could result in a sexual harassment claim.

What are Examples of Discrimination at a Halloween Party?

Unfortunately, when employees decide to dress for a workplace Halloween party, people do not always make the best costume choices. When costumes poke fun of people’s religion, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or any other protected class, this is grounds for a discrimination claim. The following are examples of scenarios that can occur at a workplace Halloween party that would be considered discriminatory:

  •  If a white employee comes to a workplace Halloween party dressed as a rapper, including wearing dark makeup on his face to appear African American, this is extremely offensive, particularly toward African American coworkers. In addition to being discriminatory, this type of behavior can create a hostile work environment and result in a discrimination claim.
  • If an employee dresses up in a character that is clearly offensive to certain groups of people, this can cause serious problems and lead to discrimination claims. For example, if an employee comes to a Halloween party dressed as Adolf Hitler and walks around giving the Heil, Hitler salute, this is an offensive costume, particularly toward Jewish coworkers. Another clear example of an offensive and discriminatory costume is if an employee dresses up as a member of the KKK, or any other figure affiliated with a known hate group. This is likely to offend most people attending a workplace Halloween party, but an African American employee would certainly have a valid discrimination claim.

Philadelphia Employment Discrimination Lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. Protect Employees Who Have Been Harassed or Discriminated Against.

If you were discriminated against, or sexually harassed while attending a workplace Halloween party, you are urged to contact the Philadelphia employment discrimination lawyers at Sidney L Gold & Associates, P.C. at your earliest convenience. We will thoroughly review your claim, determine who is responsible for violating your rights, and assist you with a harassment or discrimination claim. Our skilled legal team will continue to fight for you until we secure the best possible settlement offer. Call us today at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients in Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Montgomery County, and Cherry Hill, South Jersey.

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