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Can the ‘Naughty Nurse’ and Modern Workplace Coexist?
What some consider harmless Halloween costumes, others see as tasteless

By Dana Wilkie   10/17/2013
 

As Halloween approaches, along with the requisite office party, there's always the chance someone will show up as a stripper or in a drag costume that mocks the transgender community or in a get-up that insinuates that Muslims are terrorists.

In the middle will be the HR manager, trying to strike a détente between those who find certain Halloween costumes and parties offensive and those who see no harm in dressing up and poking fun—even at things others consider sacred.  

More than one in three employees (37 percent) celebrate Halloween with co-workers, and more than one in four (27 percent) dress in costume, according to a 2007 Vault.com survey.

But what one person considers funny and harmless, another may view as tasteless or offensive.

For instance, in August 2013 a clown wearing a President Obama mask appeared at a Missouri State Fair rodeo while the announcer asked spectators if they wanted to see "Obama run down by a bull." Some rodeo goers cheered the clown, while others were deeply offended by the display.

"I understand both sides of the reaction," said Dave Jones, president of PassionWorks!, a firm that studies what creates and sustains passion in the workplace. "If your values are violated by this event, you will see this as a sign that our nation is not moving forward in the meaningful ways you think it should. If your values are supported by this, you will think this event is a sign that healthy dissent is alive and well and our nation is still the land of the free."

On a blog called "Ask a Manager," one black reader inquired about how to tell white co-workers that painting their faces dark so they could imitate basketball stars would offend her. Her question inspired both empathy and disbelief.

An employee at a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit responded that a colleague "and her husband were going to be the Huxtables [of the "Cosby Show"], complete with blackface. They laughed and laughed. I was in complete shock." Another reader, "Lily," commented, "My ethnicity is not a 'costume' or 'character' [that] you get to dress up as for fun on a holiday. It's who I am."

Many who responded to the blog suggested that the writer ask the office manager to publish costume guidelines before Halloween. "Say that you've heard some people talk about dressing up in costumes that would cross the line into demeaning certain ethnic groups, and you'd appreciate her issuing some guidance in advance," one blog reader said. "You might mention that doing so would be in the company's best interest for legal reasons as well, because you would hate to see the company be accused of creating a hostile work environment for something like this."

Marya Calhoun, director of human asset management and development at Georgia-based Vericom Corp., agreed that a well-communicated party and costume policy is the safest route.

"We've had to give guidance to those who wanted to dress as another employee, their manager or the president of the company," she said. "Develop guidelines for office-appropriate costumes. Remember to be as clear as possible. Giving guidelines helps everyone to understand what's acceptable and appropriate."

In their policies, HR managers may need to move beyond the standard "Use good taste and judgment," because people interpret "good taste and judgment" differently. Providing examples of costumes that routinely offend people is a better approach, said Steve Miller, a labor and employment attorney at Chicago-based Fisher & Phillips. They include those that show too much skin, such as the naughty nurse or the French maid, and those that mock sexual orientation, such as drag attire.

Miller recalled the costume sold not long ago that included an orange prison jumpsuit and an alien mask, to depict an illegal alien. It made national news because it offended so many people.

"Strippers, pimps, whores, terrorists, Osama bin Laden—these can positively cause a stir in the workplace," Miller warned.

Legal Pitfalls

So you've spelled out the Halloween policies, and someone shows up in Muslim headdress and a vest stuffed with fake bombs.

Miller advises against overreacting. But be aware, he said, that some costumes "could lead to a liability nightmare for employers."

"The economic downturn has sparked a rash of employment-related litigation," he said. "For example, a revealing costume may prompt some employees to make 'friendly' jokes or inappropriate comments to the employee about the costume. These jokes or comments may continue after the Halloween celebration and cause the employee discomfort—potentially prompting a complaint of sexual harassment." 

Sounds over-the-top? Consider that Miller once defended a company against an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claim filed by a Christian worker who said the office Halloween party offended her religious beliefs because it celebrated evil. The EEOC dismissed the claim because the company told the worker she didn't have to attend the party and offered to give her a paid day off instead.

Do's and Don'ts

HR managers and employer attorneys offer the following advice to companies that want to create policies for Halloween costumes and parties:

Clearly communicate costume guidelines in advance.

Provide examples of inappropriate costumes for the workplace, such as costumes that exaggerate body parts, those that reveal too much of the body, men and women dressed as the opposite sex, terrorist get-ups, or ethnic-, religious- or race-based costumes.  

Caution employees of hospitals or other health care organizations that images of ghosts, graves, skeletons and blood don't go over well in health care settings.  

Request that workers avoid donning political costumes that could be offensive.

Make sure desk and other office decorations don't violate fire or safety codes. If some find them offensive, consider keeping them confined to a small part of the office.

Consider whether costumes might seem unprofessional on employees who interact with customers.

In some industries, such as manufacturing and warehousing, costumes can jeopardize safety.

If Halloween offends some workers, offer to let them work at home or take the day off.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Halloween Celebrations Can Lead to Scary Situations, HR News, October 2012 

Allowing Halloween Costumes at Work Can Be Tricky, HR News, October 2009

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