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Tricks at Work Are No Treat for Employers

Halloween is a lot of fun for both kids and adults.  When else can we wear inappropriate costumes, gorge on unlimited candy, and create a “Walking Dead” display in our front yard?  But when the spectral mist of Halloween creeps into the workplace, things can get really scary. Here are some real-life Halloween work-place mishaps that left employers haunted:

  • A retail store put up a notice encouraging employees to come to work in costume on Halloween.  About half participated, while the other half showed up in their regular clothes.  Donna Meraz was one of the employees who didn’t wear a costume, claiming that doing so conflicted with her religious beliefs.  Later that year when Meraz’s work hours were reduced, she sued the company alleging she was retaliated against for her religious beliefs after refusing to work in costume on Halloween.  The court gave the employer a treat, dismissing Meraz’s retaliation claim. 
  • An employee brought a retaliation claim against her employer, alleging she was fired after complaining about a male supervisor who constantly made suggestive remarks about female employees.  On one occasion, a woman wore a cat costume to work on Halloween and the male supervisor allegedly said that he “liked her tail.”  Unfortunately, the male supervisor got up to other hijinks like this and the court ordered the case to a jury. 
  • Several black and Hispanic employees of a city parks department brought class action claims alleging race and national origin harassment.  One piece of evidence included the fact that a white supervisor hung a noose in the office as part of an annual Halloween display.  The supervisor continued to hang the noose as part of the display even after a black employee complained.  Even though this evidence was certainly scary, the plaintiffs could not establish a class-wide hostile work environment claim. 
  • In an apparent homage to “mean girls” everywhere, several female co-workers routinely harassed another female employee about the size of her breasts.  One Halloween, the co-workers came to work with their bras stuffed and wore name tags with the name “Anne” – the target of their bullying.  A male co-worker later took photos of the female co-workers in sexual poses.  The co-workers got their cauldron spilled when a court allowed Anne’s sexual harassment claim to go forward to a jury.   
These examples demonstrate why it’s sometimes best to leave the ghosts and goblins at home this time of year.   Don’t fear the reaper, though.  Following your regular HR policies and practices of requiring dignity and respect in the workplace – including on Halloween – should keep you out of the witch’s brew. 

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Don Berner, the Labor Law, OSHA, & Immigration Law Guy
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Boyd Byers, the General Employment Law Guy
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Jason Lacey, the Employee Benefits Guy
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