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Can a costume be a cause for a harassment complaint?

“So what have you come as?” 

If you attend an office fancy dress party for Halloween or another such event, you’ll likely hear someone ask that question at some point during the night.

When the person being asked answers something like Pocahontas, Fu Manchu or Al Jolson, your blood might start to boil.

Many people’s idea of a fun costume continues to cross the boundaries of acceptability. Despite all the high-profile people rebuked for dressing up in Blackface, despite numerous pleas for people to end cultural appropriation at the Coachella festival or stop telling jokes about Chinese people’s eyes, some fail to understand the offense they can cause. Or, they do not care.

A good employer should send anyone wearing an offensive costume home to change. Yet most will not want to spoil the night and probably won’t do much if you tell them your colleague’s costume is offensive to you because it is stereotyping your race or nationality.

Harassment is illegal under California law

California law prohibits workplace discrimination and harassment based on race, nationality and certain other protected characteristics. Yet, a one-off event is unlikely to be enough to prove someone is harassing you. 

You typically need a series of events such that you can claim a hostile work environment. You need to show that this has been going on for a while, and going to work is unpleasant for you because of it.

If you feel this has been going on too long, seek legal help to understand how you can stop workplace harassment and discrimination.


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