Halloween at work: Don’t get BOOed by your employees!

October 30, 2017 0 COMMENTS

Halloween can be such a fun holiday for kids of all ages. When October 31st falls on a weekday, as it does this year, ghoulish fun will certainly creep its way into the workplace. How can you, as a human resources professional, ensure that the day is more fun than it is scary? Simple. Just follow a few rules.Halloween theme 3

1: Make any Halloween office festivities totally voluntary

As you know, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from religious discrimination in the workplace. Even though most people would consider Halloween in 2017 to be largely a secular holiday, it does have religious roots. Be considerate of employees who do not wish to participate in dressing up in costumes or attending Halloween-themed workplace parties. The employee may have a religious reason for not wanting to observe Halloween, and the employee has no obligation to notify the company of his or her rationale for not wanting to participate. Keeping the festivities 100% optional will help prevent any such issues. (As an aside, keep in mind that one or more of your employees may request, as a religious accommodation, to miss work that day, as it is a recognized Wiccan holiday.)

2: Ensure that any Halloween costumes are appropriate for the workplace

As Lili Reinhart recently found out, not all Halloween costumes are created equally. The actress, who stars on the “Riverdale” series (on the CW), tweeted a picture of her planned Halloween costume, which was an all-black demon. The backlash on social media was swift and unequivocal, as the costume appeared to include blackface. Reinhart apologized immediately, stating that she could “see how it was interpreted as being insensitive, completely.”

Other celebrities have also caused debate in recent years, including singer Chris Brown who dressed up as a Taliban member, and Prince Harry, who dressed up as a member of the Nazi party. Such costumes, of course, in the workplace could lead to claims for unlawful harassment. Simply put, be sure that employees understand that all costumes must be workplace appropriate and that the costumes do not stereotype any religion, national origin, gender or race in a negative light.

In addition, employees should be reminded that any costumes should not be too revealing or provocative, and should not contain any type of weapon as an accessory. Finally, costumes should be safe: if the employee works in a job around heavy machinery or where chemicals from a costume could become flammable, then the safety risks outweigh the benefit of fun, and the employer should not allow the costume. When in doubt, ask the employee to go home and change.

3: Be mindful of the professional setting if you plan to allow children to visit the workplace on Halloween

Many employers allow the children of employees, and sometimes even children of customers and suppliers, to visit the workplace after school hours on Halloween and trick-or-treat down the hallways. Although such events can be morale-building and lead to employee bonding, they can also present unintended problems. As a practical matter, be sure that you have communicated this event to all employees and remind them several times prior to the day, so that large or important meetings are scheduled at other times. As cute as the kids in costume are, you do not want to frustrate an important customer or client who needs to be in your offices that afternoon for an important meeting.

Further, if a nonexempt employee needs to leave work to pick up his or her children to attend the event, be sure that you have communicated to the employee whether he or she must use PTO time for this voluntary activity, whether it will be allowed while on-the-clock, etc. Communication prior to the event is important.

With the above in mind, you can ensure that any Halloween-related festivities at your workplace are safe and fun (and uneventful from a human resources perspective!).

Employers haunted by Halloween

October 31, 2016 0 COMMENTS

Happy Halloween! We hope you are getting only treats today and no tricks. But in keeping with the holiday spirit, today’s post highlights some unintended tricks employers may face from Halloween.    Pug dog with Halloween costume sleep on sofa

Many employers will have already hosted a Halloween office party or allowed employees to dress up today to celebrate, but the Halloween festivities, whether work-sponsored or not, can continue to haunt employers long after today. Below are several examples of problems employers encountered because of Halloween activities:

  • Last year, a college president sparked outrage after a photograph circulated on social media of him and other university staffer members at a Halloween party wearing brightly colored ponchos, sombreros, bushy mustaches, and holding maracas. Understandably, many people considered the costume offensive, resulting in a formal apology and a meeting with the university’s Office of Hispanic and Latino Initiatives.
  • Another incident last year involved two professors at another university, one of whom ultimately resigned following the incident. One of the professors wrote an e-mail in response to a request from a campus group that students avoid wearing insensitive costumes, saying that students should be allowed to wear any costume they wanted. The e-mail and other incidents at the school prompted hundreds of students and faculty to protest over perceived racial insensitivity.  The professor’s husband supported his wife’s e-mail and decided to take a sabbatical in the spring semester following the incident.
  • Our blog post last year highlighted several cases that arose from Halloween activities, including a case where an employee’s supervisor made an inappropriate comment about the employee’s fishnet stockings, a case where an employee’s provocative costume was offered by the defense in a sexual harassment case, a case where the plaintiff dressed as a cat, prompting a manager to comment that he wanted “that p***y,” and a case where a white office worker came to a party dressed in blackface.

Because Halloween falls on a Monday this year, many people celebrated over the weekend, and pictures of costumes and events are flooding social media. More pictures and costumes will follow after celebrations this evening. In addition to setting expectations for appropriate costumes to wear in the workplace, employers must be vigilant for problems that can result from employees’ costumes outside of work as well.  Employers should remind their employees that any harassing comments or gossip are inappropriate for the workplace and that engaging in such conduct can result in discipline.  Remembering these incidents and taking immediate action if any inappropriate behavior occurs will make Halloween and the weeks that follow a lot less scary.

Tricks and treats and trial briefs

October 26, 2015 0 COMMENTS

Remember NBC’s The Office? I think some lawyers used to blog about it. Anyhow, one of my favorite episodes was “Costume Contest” where the Scranton employees threw a Halloween party at the branch office. The costumes in the episode were mostly tame, ranging from Justin Bieber (Ryan) to Lady Gaga (Gabe). Late in the episode Angela dressed up as “sexy nurse.” The employment lawyer in me was not amused.  Devils Not in Disguise

Halloween is a few days away, and many employers will be holding costume-themed events. Unless HR steps in with some firm rules about costumes and conduct, some of those parties will invariably end up as reported Title VII cases. Consider just a few examples:

  • In a 2009 New York case, the plaintiff, dressed as a punk schoolgirl, was asked by her supervisor whether her fishnet stockings were waist-high or thigh-high;
  • In a 2009 Massachusetts case, photographic evidence of the provocative costumes the plaintiff wore to Halloween parties was offered by the defense in her sexual harassment case;
  • In a 2006 Louisiana case, the plaintiff dressed like a cat, prompting her manager to comment that he wanted “that p***y”;
  • In a 1995 Eighth Circuit decision, a white officer came to the party dressed in blackface, wearing overalls and a black curly wig, and carrying a watermelon.

Don’t let this be your workplace. Take steps before the party to diminish the risk of liability. Prohibit or limit alcohol. Do not allow provocative costumes. If the party takes place at the workplace, have it end at a reasonable hour. Remind employees about the company’s harassment and discrimination policies. Nothing is scarier than being sworn in for your deposition. Happy Halloween, everyone.

The Abominable Boss Man

October 31, 2014 0 COMMENTS

In honor of Halloween, this post will address some of the many potential workplace issues in the Pixar film, Monsters, Inc.  If you’ve been living under a rock and have managed to not see this film (or its recent sequel), here’s a quick recap. A city called Monstropolis is inhabited by monsters and is powered by the screams of children in the human world. shutterstock_98138216At Monsters, Inc., employees (or “Scarers”) have the job of scaring human children and collecting their screams to power the city. The company, however, is facing a serious dilemma and potential energy crisis, as human children are become harder to frighten. Through a series of amusing misadventures, the top Scarer, Sulley, and his best friend, Mike, end up caring for a little girl they dub “Boo.”

In trying to return Boo safely to the human world, Mike and Sulley discover that one of the Scarers, Randall, plans to kidnap children (particularly Boo) and use a torture machine on company property to extract their screams. Randall tries to use the torture machine on Mike, but Sulley saves the day. Sulley reports Randall and his torture device to the company chairman, who responds by promptly exiling Mike and Sulley to the Himalayas. I won’t spoil the ending for the two or three of you who have not yet seen the movie.

Thankfully, in the human world, your boss can’t respond to a workplace complaint by  shipping you off to the Abominable Snowman (though this banished yeti happens to be much friendlier than expected). Indeed, a number of state and federal laws prohibit discrimination and retaliation against employees for reporting certain workplace issues. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) is intended to “assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions . . . .” OSHA contains a nondiscrimination provision, which prohibits employers from discharging or otherwise discriminating against an employee because the employee filed a safety or health complaint or otherwise engaged in protected activity under the Act.

The monster equivalent of OSHA might have saved Mike and Sulley a trip to the Himalayas, but then it would have been a rather short movie. Plus, the Abominable Snowman would still be sorting mail at Monsters, Inc., rather than  serving up some delicious snow cones. Don’t worry–the yellow ones are lemon-flavored. Happy Halloween!

Halloween tips to avoid a total nightmare

October 27, 2014 2 COMMENTS

It’s that time of year again. Time for Halloween and all the candy, cheesy ghost stories, and inappropriate costumes that come with it. While Halloween can be fun and exciting, the fallout for employers can be all fright.

Office Parties. While workplace costume parties can lighten the mood in the office, employers should be proactive in dealing with the potential issues that can arise.

shutterstock_157867430First and foremost, employers should communicate simple and clear rules or guidelines to their employees in advance of any party. Employees should be reminded that professionalism is still expected of them at work, both in their conduct and their costumes. This is especially important if your employees will interact with customers during the workday, as an offensive or inappropriate costume could cause more than just internal employee relations issues. Employers should give their employees examples of what is potentially inappropriate, so that there is no guesswork involved for the employee.

Inappropriate costumes can include those costumes that reveal too much skin or, depending the type of workplace you operate, those that have the potential to compromise safety. This category can also include costumes that touch on hot-button political or social topics, such as an employee lampooning a high-profile political figure or dressing as a nun or priest. While some employees may be unaffected by these costumes, employers must be sensitive to how all their employees may deal with the notions raised by such costumes. read more…