Employers may view Halloween celebrations at work as a no-brainer: Annual October office parties are often great boosts to employee morale, encouraging community, healthy competition, and team-building as participants eat, drink, carve pumpkins, or vote on outfits in costume contests. But beware—any costume party puts employers at risk . . . and not just because of the occasional appearance of risqué costumes.
In 2011, a student organization at Ohio University started a poster campaign sparking debate and dialogue over racially insensitive Halloween costumes. The Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS) organization—whose purpose “is to facilitate discussion about diversity and all isms (sexism, classism, heterosexism, ethnocentrism etc.) with an emphasis on racial issues”—created the “We’re a Culture Not a Costume” campaign. Each poster includes the picture of a student, alongside a photograph of a person dressed in a costume drawing on stereotypes associated with the student’s race. The posters include taglines such as, “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.”
As Halloween approaches, employers may find themselves facing the issue of racial insensitivity head on. Many offices across the country are planning their annual Halloween costume contests, and even if a company does not have any official Halloween festivities planned during work hours, employees may choose to show up to work in a costume. Dawn T. Collins, a shareholder in the Los Angeles office of Ogletree Deakins and a member of Ogletree Deakins’ Diversity and Inclusion Ambassador Network, answers some questions on how to approach the impending holiday in light of today’s diverse workforce.
What actions should an employer take before Halloween, in terms of a company’s diversity goals, to ensure that employees are aware of problematic costumes?
“It’s a good idea for the employer to communicate general costume guidelines in advance and to communicate the expectation that all voluntary participants in the office costume party use good judgment. Remind employees that despite the holiday, they are still at work and the same workplace policies apply. It may also be appropriate to alert employees that infractions could result in discipline; however, the employer should avoid becoming the ‘costume police’ and the mood should remain festive.”
What actions should an employer take if an employee comes to work on Halloween in a costume that would be considered racially insensitive?
“From the onset, an employer should reserve the right to ask employees to alter or remove an offensive costume. Ideally, the employer can recognize a costume that may be perceived as racially insensitive and have the employee change before any complaints are made. This may require the employer to be sensitive to subtleties that could cause an otherwise innocuous costume to be perceived as racially insensitive due to timely topics or current events.”
What actions should an employer take if an employee complains that another worker’s costume is racially offensive?
“The employer should receive the complaint as it would any other protected complaint and follow its own complaint procedures and, if appropriate, its progressive discipline policies. If an employer would typically discipline its employee in response to a race harassment complaint, those disciplinary policies should apply whether it’s Halloween or any other day.”
“Enjoy the party, but stay vigilant.”
Employers can use their dress code policies and anti-harassment policies to avoid and address issues with insensitive or offensive costumes. If a dress code policy is used to encompass a workplace’s Halloween celebrations as well as their day-to-day wear, employers should ensure that the policy does not discriminate or allow for discrimination against a protected class based on a stereotype. Racial, ethnic, and even geographic stereotyping claims would not only be detrimental to a company’s culture, but they can be difficult to defend. A little forethought can garner employers all the benefits that a holiday celebration can bring to your company culture while also staying respectful of your workers’ cultures. One should always be sensitive to differences, no matter the occasion or time of year.