Dressing like a terrorist this Halloween season is probably not going to get you a promotion.
In fact, costumes that are in poor taste might even get you in career hot water if you wear one to an office party or Halloween bash where you might see some of your not-so-close coworkers or managers. And your actions could even get others in trouble.
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 contended, “could be perceived as racially insensitive.”
Shanti Atkins, president and CEO of ELT, an ethics and workplace compliance training firm, has seen some major Halloween costume faux pas in her work and she’s here to warn everyone that costumes you think are funny, sexy, or scary could come back to haunt you, literally.
“There are different levels of conservatism in every workplace,” she explained, when it comes to how far you can push the envelope. But in most offices and factories you don’t want to wear a costume that offends a certain ethic group or goes crazy on the sex-pot-o-meter.
It potentially can create a hostile work environment and even lead to lawsuits, she added, and no employer wants that.
In one case, Atkins worked with a company where a female manager filed sexual harassment charges against a male manager. In the midst of the investigation into the allegations, the complaining manager wore a over-the-top sexy cocktail waitress costume to an office Halloween parade and the male manager complained to his superiors that her choice of outfit proved her claims were BS.
“That was a sticky situation because her wearing that was not an invitation for harassment but it created a ripped effect,” she said. “They basically had to make it clear to him that the two things were separate, but they also talked to the woman, telling her that ‘it was not appropriate for you to show up at work dressed like this.’”
Figuring out what’s appropriate or not is the challenge. Atkins actually scoured the costume offerings out there this year and provided me with a list of what she deemed to be the most inappropriate workplace Halloween costumes of the season:
Terrorists/Muslims – With the continued hostility over the planned Islamic center near ground zero, this costume promises to crop up in the workplace. With workplace violence at a tipping point and the continued tensions over the war in the Middle East, an employee showing up in an office building like this is likely to cause workplace disruption and even chaos. While the employee wearing the costume is likely to be doing so light heartedly, the potential security threat and anxiety it is sure to instill in the workplace is no joke.
Illegal Aliens – With all the recent debate over federal immigration law, and heated rhetoric coming from all corners, this costume is expected to initiate controversy in any workplace. The fight for an immigration law, which would be designed to uphold the federal law against illegal immigration, is changing by the day - many are angry, implying that illegal aliens harm the economy, steal jobs and continue to commit crimes. The stereotypes that this costume portrays, along with the racial implications carried with it, could lead to workplace discrimination claims stemming from inappropriate conversation around national origin, ethnicity, and race.
Tiger Woods – November 2009 saw the cheating scandal of the world’s number one golfer turn into a full-blown media circus. Atkins predicts that many men will dress up as an overblown version of Woods. Anytime you have a situation with light skinned workers dressing up as dark skinned, the potential to offend is off the charts – bringing up stinging issues like ethnicity and skin color. Female coworkers may also be offended by their coworkers glorifying Woods’ cheating. This “fun” costume is a surefire risk for hostile environment claims.
Lady Gaga – She certainly knows how to get people’s attention, with her extreme outfits and accessory choices. However, Lady Gaga turned the controversy up a notch when she wore a dress made of raw red meat at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. Was her purpose to start a distasteful media storm? Was she declaring that she sees nothing wrong with consuming animal products both for food and clothing? Was she making a statement signifying that women are often looked at as “meat?” These will be the very questions employees will ask if their coworker dons this costume for Halloween. Many people and organizations, such as PETA, take this topic very seriously and personally.
Chilean Miners – For 69 days, 33 Chilean miners were trapped underground in the aftermath of a Chilean earthquake. Now as these individuals are being rescued, they have become the center of media attention. Portraying a Chilean miner for Halloween can certainly ignite controversy. This costume pokes fun at workplace safety, blue collar workers and Latinos – fueling the fire and potentially initiating discrimination disputes in the workplace.
I don’t know about you guys, but the meat suit or going as a Chilean miner doesn’t seem that bad.
And just in case you’re looking for ideas, my intern Julia Nollen had a great one. She going as Christine O’Donnell. Her costume, a suit and a witch hat. (Coincidentally, O’Donnell told an ABC News reporter that she’s going as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, adding that Dorothy “killed the witch, there you go.”)
But, even something as innocuous as Julia’s choice can pose workplace issues because it’s political. And you know what happens when you mix politics and work.
Maybe you should keep your dress-up moment for the neighborhood Halloween party.