As Halloween approaches, the scariest part of the season for employers can be how to handle inappropriate or offensive costumes in the workplace.
“Social events in the workplace, such as Halloween parties, can contribute very positively to workplace culture but they are not without risks,” says Elinor Whitmore, Vice President of the Stitt Feld Handy Group, a division of ADR Chambers.
It is well-known that employers have the responsibility to ensure their workplaces are free from issues such as harassment, discrimination and bullying. Whitmore, a mediator, facilitator, workplace consultant and certified professional coach, says “if an employee’s costume or conduct during a Halloween party were to cross one of those lines, there would be an expectation that the employer would deal appropriately with the situation.”
An employer’s response to a complaint depends on many factors, Whitmore says, including the nature of the complaint – was it is a formal or informal complaint, for example – and what the company policies are. The bottom line, regardless of these factors, is that every complaint should be taken seriously and the employer needs to ensure he or she responds appropriately.
“Some employers may be tempted to dismiss or minimize a complaint about a costume thinking it isn’t work-related or isn’t of sufficient concern to warrant being taken seriously – but they do so at their peril,” Whitmore warns. Whitmore, who has mediated various workplace conflicts including disputes between colleagues, between managers and employees and within teams, says “this is where an ounce of prevention would be worth a pound of cure and an employer likely should take reasonable steps to avoid this situation occurring in the first place.”
She notes that while a company might have existing policies regarding acceptable conduct and clothing, a good rule of thumb is for the company to have guidelines that apply to social events and anticipate the specific risks that may arise. If, for example, an employer doesn’t have a dress code or a policy relating to alcohol consumption, a Halloween office party “may leave them in a more vulnerable position if they subsequently want to take action against someone who wore a problematic costume.”
It is impossible to determine if action against an employee for an inappropriate costume would withstand challenge, and because of this uncertainty, clear guidelines around acceptable clothing and conduct are an employer’s best defence.
“It would be best to try to minimize the risk as much as possible,” Whitmore says, noting that although she is an expert in conflict resolution, her advice to her clients is always that the best form of conflict resolution is prevention.
“In that way, we are like doctors – if there is a way to prevent the disease, it is much better than trying to cure it.”
Whitmore points to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recently publicized “brown face” costume – where Trudeau, a then-29-year-old teacher came dressed up as Disney’s Aladdin, complete with painted skin – as an example of the damage a workplace Halloween costume can cause.
“Problematic costumes can result in people being hurt and offended, can undermine the credibility of the person wearing the costume, can divert people’s attention away from other issues, undermine morale and a host of other problems,” she says. “As much as possible, employers should be mindful of how they can pro-actively minimize these risks so that their workplaces can reap the benefits of these social events.”