Halloween provides employers a great opportunity to boost morale and camaraderie in the workplace. If orchestrated correctly, employers and employees will have the opportunity to bond while participating in Halloween festivities. But employers must be thoughtful about the types of celebratory activities they allow, so workplace fun does not devolve into an HR horror scene.
One decision looms large: whether to allow employees to wear costumes in the office. There are obvious potential adverse consequences Employees may be offended by particular costumes, which may cause them to report their concerns, leading to a sequence of events that are unpleasant for all involved and opening the door to potential civil liability. However, this may be avoided by thoughtful and well-communicated rules on Halloween costumes.
Option 1: Do not allow costumes
One way to avoid potential issues is simple: do not allow costumes. While this may be a bit of a buzzkill, there are other ways to take advantage of Halloween and provide for some fun in the office. For example:
- Allow employees to decorate the office
- Have a pumpkin decorating contest
- Have a “spooky” potluck
- Put candy in each cubicle or office and allow employees to trick-or-treat
- Allow employees to leave early, so they can celebrate Halloween in their own way
Option 2: Create Halloween costume guidelines
If you allow employees to wear costumes, it is prudent to establish clear written guidelines, provided to employees, so they are aware of the rules in advance of Halloween.
First, these guidelines should reiterate that the company dress code applies even to Halloween costumes, and costumes that violate the dress code (or other policies) are disallowed.
Second, the guidelines should make clear that potentially offensive costumes or costumes that may violate a dress code policy – such as sexually provocative costumes – are prohibited. As a further example, employers may have a prohibition on costumes that are religious, cultural, or racial, or disability- themed, given the high likelihood that such could be offensive to other employees. Employers could also consider a ban on politically-charged costumes, so long as the prohibition is neutral (i.e. it is equally applicable and enforced against Democrat and Republican leaning costumes). Employers might even offer to pre-approve costumes to avoid any surprises.
It will also be important to create clear consequences should an employee break the guidelines. For example, employers should state in any written costume guidelines that failure to abide by the guidelines may result in 1) the employee being asked to go home and change into appropriate costume or other attire; and/or 2) discipline. They should also state that the employer has the final authority for determining whether a costume is appropriate.
Finally, these guidelines should make it clear that neither costumes nor participating in Halloween merriment otherwise are not mandatory activities. Not every employee will find costumes fun. In fact, some employees may have religious or moral objections to dressing up and celebrating Halloween. The guidelines should state that any employee who has such objections should bring such to the attention of their supervisor or HR. Depending on the circumstances, management may consider allowing the employee to telework or take the day off.
Halloween should be fun for employers and employees alike. Advanced planning to avoid the consequences of inappropriate costumes should help minimize risk and maximize the positive benefits of celebrating Halloween in the workplace.