As long as there have been office Halloween parties, there have been overtly pregnant Halloween nuns, crudely created Halloween private parts, hyper-polarizing Halloween politicians and, through the ages, all manner of other now-inappropriate costumes that have added to the all-around Halloween jackassery.

Office Halloweening is dying a slow death, and costume choices that offend rather than amuse are a big part of the reason for the zombie status of the seasonal party in 9-to-5 America.

Valued as an exercise in comaraderie, spontaneity and teamwork, office Halloween parties offer a creative outlet for workers to pretend they’re someone else for a night and blow off steam.

But are they worth the risk of throwing the company into a boiling cauldron of legal and personnel issues?

More and more, employers are saying they’re not.

A hypersensitive culture is constantly redrawing the line separating what’s appropriate and what’s offensive, and even something as simple as a costume misstep can result in a complaint or expensive lawsuit.

Even costumes outside the office have caused problems for employers and employees alike.

“There’s got to be some kind of dress code. You don’t just throw all your dress codes out the window because it’s a Halloween party.”

— David Barron, employment and lawyer

Halloween parties are “lots of trouble” for employers, David Barron, an employment and labor lawyer at the Cozen O’Connor firm in Houston, told Patch.

“Costumes and what’s appropriate are always one issue that come up, and some companies are shying away from costume parties,” he said.

There’s also a trend toward more alcohol-free parties — watered-down affairs with themes un-goulish enough they’d fly at a preschool assembly.

Complaints that end in lawsuits are rare, Barron said. Still, more companies are doing away with office Halloween parties completely or at least washing their hands of legal liability by moving them off-campus to a hotel. That makes the venue responsible for cutting off inebriated revelers and arranging for transportation home.

“That’s the smartest thing to do,” Barron said. “You don’t want your HR person evaluating if people have had too much to drink.”

Halloween costume complaints can range from “immature and silly things to things that can cross a line,” Barron said.

Halloween revelers are safe to dress as an armadillo, depending on how they cover their bottom halves, but superhero costumes with a sexy midriff tops or Speedo-tight bottoms — the sexy-this-or-that costumes easily found at Halloween party stores — are probably off limits.

“There’s got to be some kind of dress code,” Barron said. “You don’t just throw all your dress codes out the window because it’s a Halloween party.”

Boston Marathon Costume ‘Too Soon’

Often, people who get into trouble over their Halloween costumes can trace their problem to a single lapse in judgment, Barron said.

If she could, Alicia Ann Lynch, a 22-year-old Michigan woman, would probably ask for a do-over on her 2013 decision to go to the Halloween party as a bloody Boston Marathon runner — a mere six months after the bombing tragedy.

“It was in very poor taste, and maybe would have worked if it was done five years later,” Barron said, “but it was too soon. Some things are just too raw.”

Lynch not only lost her job, she was treated like a pariah and run off social media. People wished her dead, and even her parents got death threats after someone started sharing their phone number on social media. Among the critics was Sydney Corcoran, who along with her mother, was injured in the Boston Marathon bombing.

“You should be ashamed,” Corcoran tweeted, “my mother lost both her legs and I almost died in the marathon. You need a filter.”

Six years later, a Google search of Lynch’s name yields 10.5 million hits.

Blackface Is Never A Good Idea

There are other costumes that no passage of time will make acceptable. Even if a complaint doesn’t end in a lawsuit, it can throw the person who wore the questionable costume into a social media buzzsaw.

Last year, an Iowa teacher wore blackface to portray the “Napoleon Dynamite” character Lafawndah, who is black, and was widely criticized. The Halloween party wasn’t sponsored by or affiliated with the school, but the school district — already under state supervision for disproportionately placing minority students in special education classes and subjecting them to disciplinary action more often — investigated after a photo circulated on social media.

Teacher Megan Luloff, who was 32 at the time, said later through her attorney that she had never heard of blackface, just wanted to make her costume more authentic and at no point intended to “mock the character’s ethnicity or … be offensive to anyone.”

The status of the Davenport school district’s investigation about the costume choice is unclear, but Luloff is still listed as a first-grade teacher.

In Kansas City, Missouri, a nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital lost her job after she posted photos on social media showing her and another person in blackface. The hospital launched an investigation after the photo prompted comments on Facebook, including one that said: “I do not feel that it is safe having a racist employee working with the public.”

Even though both cases were at non-work functions, the costumes shown in photos became “legally problematic” for both the employee and the employer when they became publicly known.

“Once you have that information and that person is allowed to stay in a role, that person loses the ability to say ‘I’m unbiased and can act in a neutral way’ if they were dressing as a protected class. The photo is exhibit A. They’re a damaged commodity as a decision-maker.”

— David Barron

“Is someone going to run out and file a lawsuit over an offensive costume, probably not,” Barron said. “However, if the lawsuit involves racial harassment or discrimination or something sexual, the offended party probably already has a laundry list of incidents. A social media image that’s not sensitive can bolster the other complaints.”

Once the photos become known, “what’s an employer supposed to do with that?” he said.

“Let’s say someone dresses in a horribly offensive way, a photo is posted on social media and it becomes known in the workplace. Someone sees it, complains and says they don’t think it’s appropriate the person should be their manager or make hiring changes,” Barron said.

“Once you have that information and that person is allowed to stay in a role, that person loses the ability to say ‘I’m unbiased and can act in a neutral way’ if they were dressing as a protected class. The photo is exhibit A. They’re a damaged commodity as a decision-maker.”

What’s Safe To Wear?

Costume choices that respond to current news events and political figures present another conundrum for employers. They don’t want to infringe on their workers’ freedom of expression, but neither do they want the party to regress into a political brawl if make-believe Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders start fussing over health care.

That doesn’t mean the company should hand out a list of sanctioned costume ideas — though some of them do — or impose so many restrictions that superheroes look too modest and bashful to have ever taken on any villains.

Barron said a good rule of thumb at company-sponsored Halloween parties is a blanket prohibition on costumes that are religious, political or sexual — think about President Trump, a nun, rabbi, priest or hooker. Such costumes not only alter the behavior of the person wearing them but can cause discomfort and contention among coworkers who hold different attitudes, he said.

If you’re thinking of toting a dog kennel to work and going to the party as a caged migrant child or costuming yourself as anything resembling a mass shooter, Barron has some advice: Don’t. Some costumes have nothing to do with over-sensitivity and everything to do with common decency.

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