Trick or Treat: Can Employers Face Liability for Celebrating Halloween in the Workplace?
Halloween celebrations in the workplace can be a treat for employees but the trick is in the employer’s execution. Costumes present a particularly tricky issue because well-intentioned “creativity” can quickly deteriorate into an employee relations nightmare. Employers should also be mindful that employees must have the option not to participate because certain religions prohibit the celebration of Halloween. Read on for tips to ensure your workplace celebration is more fun than frightening.
To avoid potential liability, employers should consider the following guidelines.
Accommodations for Religious Beliefs
If participation is “mandatory,” inform employees that accommodations will be made for those employees who cannot participate due to a conflicting religious belief. Employers have an obligation to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious belief that may prohibit the employee from celebrating Halloween. Although an employer is required to excuse an employee from participation due to a conflicting religious belief, an employer is not required to cancel the Halloween celebration altogether. At least one court has held that cancellation of a Halloween celebration because of an employee’s religious objection would not be a reasonable accommodation.
Reimbursement for Costumes
If you require employees participating in the celebration to purchase costumes, you may have to reimburse the employee for the costume because it may constitute a uniform under certain state laws (i.e., New York). For example, under New York state law, “when an employee purchases a required uniform, he or she shall be reimbursed by the employer for the total cost of the uniform no later than the next payday.” So, if you own a restaurant and require wait staff to wear costumes on Halloween, this may potentially constitute a “uniform” that requires you to reimburse the employees.
Adherence to Dress Code Policy
Inform employees that dress code policies will still be enforced to prohibit offensive costumes. Provide examples of inappropriate costumes, such as costumes that are too revealing or are ethnic-, religious- or race-based costumes. Request that employees avoid political costumes that could be offensive. If an employee shows up in an offensive costume, send the employee home to change into appropriate clothes.
Ensure that costumes do not violate any safety codes. Employers will likely be responsible under workers’ compensation laws for an employee who is injured on the job due to an unsafe costume. In one case, an employer was actually liable for an employee’s injuries under workers’ compensation laws when the employee fell off of a stool after being scared by a coworker wearing a Halloween mask.