Marshmallow peeps, other Halloween activities can lead to discrimination complaints

October 28, 2023

Next week, workplaces may celebrate Halloween with activities such as food, drinks, costumes, parties and the like. Many employees enjoy fun holiday activities. But with any actions that vary from the norm in our workplaces, trouble can brew.

And unfortunately, it’s hard to know where the “fun” line ends. We are a diverse society — and people view situations differently.

For example, in 2008, a woman sued her employer, Baycare Business Health Services, alleging racial discrimination and harassment based on her race, Black, among other claims. She alleged, in part, that she was discriminated against when a coworker gave her Halloween candy the plaintiff found offensive. According to the case, “the offending candy was a box of marshmallow ‘Peeps’ that were in the shape of ghosts.” She alleged when the coworker gave her the candy, the coworker told the employee, “to ‘peep that from the hood.’” The plaintiff was offended by the candy shaped as ghosts, which the employee believed to have resembled the Ku Klux Klan.

She also claimed to be offended by the alleged comment, but the plaintiff could not describe what she understood “peep that from the hood” to mean, and the coworker denied making the reference to “the hood.”

The plaintiff argued she was treated more harshly (by being terminated) by the employer when the plaintiff allegedly threatened other employees versus how the employer addressed the complaint lodged by her against the White employee who gave her the allegedly offensive peeps. The plaintiff says she was fired but her White coworker was not. Of this, the court said receiving ghost peeps and threatening others are not comparable.

Was this a stupid case? Yes, of course it was.

But it highlights how some seemingly innocent activities can lead to claims (albeit unsuccessfully here), so it’s important to at least consider how actions will impact others; and this is especially true when planning for Halloween festivities at work.

David Miklas, a Florida employment attorney, for example, reminds employers that they should be mindful that Halloween festivities in general “may trigger religious accommodation requests, such as from a Wiccan. Even minority religions that employers may think are off-the-wall may be protected under federal law if the employee sincerely holds the beliefs.”

If employers are permitting employees to wear costumes, this is definitely a tricky area. Misappropriation of other’s cultures is a concern, as is anything too sexy, too violent, too scary or otherwise offensive (ie: dressing as the suspected Iowa murderer).

Dressing in sports team gear or as a celebrity is usually not a problem as long as the other rules of conduct are met. For example, dressing up as Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce is probably fine, unless employees also go around holding hands and kissing as a “couple” at work.

Employers should also be sure to prohibit costume props or decorations that are violent or too frightening. Full face masks should be completely off-limits, as should pretend weapons.

Employers also need to be considerate of food allergies if there is a party, and determine whether to limit alcohol, if having it at all, while at work.

As with anything, setting expectations is important, as is early intervention. Whatever you are permitting or not, make that clear so that employees have guidance. Most importantly, make sure that it’s clear that compliance with your rules around civility and harassment are expected and will be enforced.

No events should be mandatory, and no one should be criticized if they fail to participate.

As an employee, don’t commit Halloween-assisted career suicide. Govern yourself accordingly.