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Halloween is No Excuse for Harassment: A Spooky History for Employers

Posted in Discrimination & Harassment, Human Resources (HR) Compliance

For most people, Halloween is a fun and silly holiday.

Yet the holiday has a distinct place in employment law history.  Indeed, for some employers, the holiday has brought more tricks than treats. 

  • In Marrero v. Goya of Puerto Rico, 304 F.3d 7 (1st Cir. 2002), a supervisor was alleged to have gone out to buy Halloween presents. Allegedly, he gave the employee "a direct penetrating look with lust," and said: "I have a little present for you that you’re never going to forget and if you don’t do the things I tell you and order you to do I am going to fire you." 
     
  • In Grubka v. Department of Treasury, 858 F.2d 1570 (Fed. Cir. 1988), a supervisor appealed his demotion for engaging in alleged acts of misconduct in kissing and embracing two female employees at a Halloween party organized and staged by the employees at a hotel after hours away from their workplace and for their entertainment.  While he prevailed, i’m not quite sure its the type of activity one would put on a resume.
  • In Lester v. Natsios, 290 F. Supp. 2d 11 (D. D.C. 2003), an employee claimed racial harassment after a costume incident that is probably best left to the court’s analysis: "The …incident is best described as silly, although perhaps also somewhat offensive. It involved a supervisor who dressed up for a Halloween party in a costume as a plant, and then snipped scissors at plaintiff in a conference room." Um, ok.

  • In Richardson v. New York State Dept. of Corr. Ser., 180 F. 3d 426(2d Cir. 1999), an employee claimed that at Halloween, a co-worker said to the plaintiff something to the effect that "all you spooks have a nice Halloween." According to the court, the Plaintiff "perceived that the word "spooks" was used as a derogatory term for Black people, and recalled that her co-workers all turned to look at her when the remark was made." The Court ultimately allowed some hostile work environment claims to proceed, though other references to "lynchings" probably had something to do with it too. 

  • Then of course, there’s the supervisor who was alleged to have had a frank discussion of what he was going to wear for Halloween. In Caouette v. OfficeMax, Inc., 352 F. Supp. 2d 134 (D. N.H. 2005), a female cashier, alleged that the supervisor "responded to a question about his stated intention to dress as a woman for Halloween by saying that he was a hermaphrodite who menstruated and used to wear a bra."  The court upheld his termination.

So, as your employees dress up and act silly, keep on the lookout for employees who cross the line.  As these cases show, Halloween is no excuse for harassment. 

For a further reminder, you can read my prior Halloween post about "Naughty Nurses".