Of Ebola, Terrorists and Plane Crashes

News headlines may inspire Halloween costumes that offend, create liability

By Dana Wilkie Oct 27, 2014
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Ebola containment suits. ISIS terrorists. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 passengers.

Welcome to potentially popular—and problematic—costumes that could show up at your workplace Halloween party.



News headlines often inspire Halloween getups. And while the outfits may be clever and current, they could also offend some workers or expose a company to lawsuits.

“In today’s workplace and litigious society, caution is indeed the way to go,” said Steve Miller, a labor and employment attorney at Chicago-based Fisher & Phillips. “If someone wants to dress in a racy or inappropriate costume, tell them to take it to a private party or a bar. Don’t bring it to the workplace.”

For instance, this year’s Ebola scare means Ebola-themed Halloween costumes are in demand, with one website selling—for $79.99—a white suit emblazoned with “Ebola,” a face shield, a breathing mask, safety goggles and latex gloves. Critics say the costumes make light of a disease that’s causing global fears of a pandemic.

Bloodstained cheerleader and football player costumes are being sold by the Wal-Mart-owned supermarket Asda, sparking criticism that the outfits invoke images of high-profile school massacres in the U.S.

This year’s beheadings of journalists, aid workers and soldiers by radical Sunni Islamist groups may lead some to dress up as an ISIL or ISIS terrorist. Terrorist costumes at work, Miller said, can cause disruption and anxiety, especially for Muslims who can be mistakenly associated with radical Islamism and terrorism.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) reports that more than two-thirds of respondents to an NRF-sponsored survey plan to buy costumes this year—the most in the survey’s 11-year history. The average person will spend $77.52 on costumes, compared with $75.03 in 2013, according to the survey.

Costume Fallout

Dave Jones, president of PassionWorks!, a firm that studies what creates and sustains passion in the workplace, said today’s employers may feel more pressure than ever to provide costume guidelines not just because of a litigious society, but because younger workers have grown up with more graphic and violent media images than their older colleagues.

“There’s a link between what we see on television and the Internet and the confusion some people have about what is appropriate,” he said. “When I was young, I was fed a media diet of ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ ‘Get Smart,’ ‘The Monkees’ and ‘Happy Days.’ When I considered dressing up at Halloween, these were the sources of my inspiration. Today, with TV shows like ‘Criminal Minds,’ ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The Walking Dead,’ and [explicit] music videos like the latest from Nicki Minaj, is it any wonder that people have a different view of what’s appropriate in the workplace?”

Because of the reach of social media, one inappropriately dressed worker could open a person—or even an entire organization—up to widespread ridicule or criticism.

After Halloween 2013, a woman in Michigan was bullied on social media after she used Instagram and Twitter to post a photo of herself dressed as a Boston Marathon bombing victim. She wore running clothes and a marathon bib, had fake blood splattered over her body, and appeared to be posing in an office setting.

That same year, two students from the United Kingdom’s University of Chester apologized after attending a Halloween competition in costumes that depicted the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on New York City’s Twin Towers. Some people were criticized that year for wearing tattered airline uniforms, covered with blood, to depict the crashing of Asiana Airlines flight 214.

Also that year, actress and “Dancing with the Stars” celebrity Julianne Hough apologized after dressing up in blackface and styling her hair in a knotty up-do to depict the “Crazy Eyes” character in the Netflix drama “Orange Is the New Black.”

Liability

In 2008, a manager at the Massachusetts transit authority was fired because he didn’t reprimand an employee who came to work with a noose around his neck as part of a Halloween costume. The outfit, supervisors maintained, could have been perceived as racially insensitive because nooses have been used in several prominent instances to intimidate black people and conjure images of lynchings.

Workplace costume guidelines must specify that costumes playing to racial stereotypes are off-limits, Miller said.

“I’ve seen costumes of people who wear Mickey Mouse shirts, acting like they’re Asian tourists in Disneyland, walking around with cameras and handing out fortune cookies,” he said.

Sexually suggestive outfits—think the “naughty nurse”—can invite jokes or comments that may cause the costume-wearer discomfort, which could leave a company open to a sexual harassment suit.

Any company lawyer should be concerned about costumes that depict people with disabilities, however innocently. An example, Miller said, is a worker who comes dressed as Stephen Hawking, the famed physicist who has a motor neuron disease that’s left him almost entirely paralyzed.

Costumes can be construed as religiously harassing if a worker comes dressed, for example, as a Hasidic Jew, a crucified Christ, or a pregnant nun.

“Even things like witches can offend some religious sensibilities,” Miller said, referring to Christians who shun Halloween because they believe it celebrates demons and evil.

Accommodations

Banning witch costumes—a staple of Halloween—may be going too far for some companies. Instead, Miller suggests, employers need to first spell out their costume policies, then offer accommodations to workers who might be offended either by a Halloween-themed party or the costumes that come with it.

“Employees may object to the presence of Halloween decorations or parties or costumes based on religious ideas,” he said. “If it’s just a luncheon, they don’t have to go. But if people are reporting to work in costume and they find that offensive to their religious beliefs, give these employees a paid day off.”

HR managers should clearly communicate costume guidelines in advance. They should provide examples of costumes that routinely offend people, such as those that show too much skin, exaggerate body parts, or mock sexual orientation, immigration status, race, ethnicity, a political party, or a religion.

Employees of hospitals or other health care organizations should avoid images of ghosts, graves, skeletons and blood that may offend or frighten patients.

Employers should also consider if costumes can be unsafe—such as in manufacturing or warehouse settings—or unprofessional for employees who interact with customers or clients.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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