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Halloween usually brings out the creative side in all of us, whether through designing costumes, putting up decorations, or at times the choice of what treat to hand out to eager trick-or-treaters (I personally still recall the lady on our street who handed out a six-pack of Sprite!).
Although Halloween is meant to be a festive day, for some employers it could also lead to scary legal issues, particularly when Halloween is celebrated at the workplace. Here is a snapshot of some of the employment law issues lurking in the shadows at Halloween:
- The inappropriate costume: Employers face the prospect that poor judgment will be used by some employees and costumes may end up offending rather than scaring/delighting co-workers and customers. Think about costumes that depict other cultures, religions, ethnic groups, or otherwise poke fun at an employee’s politics, gender, and opinions. Costumes may be seen as insensitive, derogatory or discriminatory, and can prompt complaints from offended co-workers under harassment or bullying policies. Failure to address these concerns may be construed as contributing to a hostile work environment.
Inappropriate costumes can also have scary business consequences, if it affects customer confidence or otherwise insults a client.
- Workplace violence concerns: The inappropriate costume or the inappropriate Halloween prank can leave employers open to legal action. For instance, if an employee comes to work with a toy gun or toy weapon, or otherwise pulls off their best Michael Myers or Die Hard impression, co-workers may not only fail to appreciate the joke, but may feel threatened and uncomfortable throughout the interaction.
- Health and safety concerns: If employees are being encouraged to dress up for Halloween, or if there are decorations in the workplace, employers should ensure that these costumes and decorations do not threaten employee wellbeing (i.e. made from hazardous materials, of such a length that they can easily get caught in equipment, etc.). Health and safety concerns are also at play if an employer holds a Halloween party, where presumably food and drinks may be served. Such an employer should remain aware of and responsive to any food allergies, alcohol intake (which preferably should not take place onsite or around sensitive machinery), and injuries that may occur during the party.
- The social media scare: The inappropriate costume, prank or party may rear its ugly head if an employee posts pictures or comments regarding the event on social media. The potential reputational harm that may result from such posts are infinite, and the employer may need to contemplate whether discipline is warranted for employees involved in the inappropriate conduct/picture as well as the employee who posts it online.
Social media may also be used as part of a Halloween prank (i.e. threatening emails sent to co-workers in the lead up to Halloween). Despite being online and offsite, these comments may require an employer’s attention, or otherwise expose the employer to legal damages from the victim of the pranks.
The potential for these legal issues does not mean that Halloween should be banned from the workplace. Employers can address these issues through advance planning and clear guidelines about what is and is not acceptable in terms of costumes, pranks, and decorations. Reminding employees that they are still at work, despite the decorations and costumes, and that they are expected to act professionally will make celebrating Halloween more of a treat, rather than a costly trick.