Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Please don't come as Letterman to the office Halloween party, say lawyers

Tresa Baldas
October 26, 2009
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Companies might want to put out a "do's" and "don'ts" list for Halloween costumes this year, employment lawyers advise. And it's not just the naughty nurse or street pimp that employers should ban, the lawyers say, but politically and socially offensive characters as well.

What's going too far? Try the pumpkin-head Obama. Or the illegal-alien costume, an orange jumpsuit complete with a green card that has been surfacing online in recent weeks, roiling immigration groups and triggering protests. An anti-health-reform patient might also offend some people, particularly if someone carries around a sign that says, "Gimme, gimme, gimme."

"You might set some people off there," warned Steve Miller, of counsel to the Chicago office of Atlanta's Fisher & Phillips.

Miller is advising employers to send out an e-mail or memo in advance of Halloween reminding employees that they must use good taste and judgment when selecting costumes to wear to work or at the office party. Employees should be careful, for example, in dressing up as the first African-American president or the first Hispanic woman to be named a Supreme Court justice, he said.

Miller advised employers to ban anything that is sexually provocative, carries a political or social message, or is simply inappropriate for interacting with colleagues and clientele. And don't be afraid to punish the employee who goes too far. "Employees who — in spite of direction by the employer — appear in inappropriate costumes, should be disciplined," he said.

Scandals in the current headlines are other likely sources of inappropriate workplace costumes, said Shanti Atkins, a former employment lawyer at Littler Mendelson and current president of ELT Inc., which specializes in ethics and compliance training for employers.

For instance, Atkins predicted many men will dress as David Letterman, talk jokingly about workplace sex and even pretend to hit on female co-workers — a potential sexual harassment concern, she warned.

Atkins also noted that acceptable costumes from years past might not work this year. For example, a suggestion four years ago to wear a "pink slip" over clothing and chase co-workers around might not be funny given the current unemployment rate.

Tresa Baldas can be contacted at tbaldas@alm.com.

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