Some workplaces go all-out for Halloween. In addition to decorating every square inch of space and providing copious quantities of sweets, there are often costume contests. As people try to outdo their co-workers in that area, they often throw caution – and good taste – to the wind.
What might be acceptable at a private Halloween party with a few friends could be considered wildly offensive in the workplace – especially to those who belong to a group who is seemingly being portrayed.
Blackface and other examples
It seems like every Halloween; some white celebrity is photographed at a party dressed as a famous Black person – complete with make-up that can only be a considered “blackface.” Political figures who made the unfortunate choice to wear blackface to a costume party have felt the repercussions of that choice many decades later when photos of them came to light.
Aside from blackface, some other costumes that just a few decades ago may have been acceptable at an office Halloween celebration no longer are. This can include people who dress as:
- Drag queens or members of the opposite sex
- Middle eastern terrorists
Any portrayal of a religion, ethnicity, nationality or any protected class is unwise.
Employer guidance and response are key
Employers should provide some type of guidance to employees regarding what is and isn’t appropriate Halloween attire – typically something more specific than saying it should be in “good taste” or they should use “good judgment.” Those terms can be interpreted differently.
Likely, a one-time offensive Halloween costume choice by a colleague or even a manager isn’t grounds for legal action. However, how people – particularly those in management and human resources – respond to it can be telling about the level of respect an employer has for their employees.
You have a right to speak up without fear of retaliation or firing. If you’re not surprised to see one or more offensive depictions of your race or other characteristics at a Halloween party because it’s just one more example of the discrimination or harassment you face regularly, then it may be time to find out what your legal options are.