Avoiding Halloween Pitfalls in the Workplace

By Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP October 24, 2019
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Avoiding Halloween Pitfalls in the Workplace

​Seasonal office parties, complete with decorations and costumes, can be a great opportunity for employee engagement, communication, team building and simply having fun with co-workers. There are tremendous benefits to such gatherings.

We should recognize, however, that things can go awry and that people may have other concerns that will need to be addressed. Not all employees want to participate in decorating the office, wearing a costume or attending a party, or want to deal with decorations, costumes and behaviors that are inappropriate.

As leaders, we need to maintain professionalism in the office, even during Halloween. Workplace rules and dress code policies still need to be enforced. Here are some tips to communicate the organization's expectations and hold everyone accountable.

  • Indecorous decorations? Companies are generally advised not to decorate for Halloween and to communicate to employees that "gruesome or graphic or otherwise distracting decor is not allowed." The president of an HR services provider commented that a small pumpkin on one's desk can be acceptable, but "witches, demons and goblins can be unprofessional and potentially offensive to co-workers and customers."
  • "What dress code?" Employees depart from the dress code we normally expect at work for costume events such as Halloween, and for casual days, but the main policy still needs to be enforced. A simple metric might be that employees must be covered from shoulders to knees. Organizations should give examples of appropriate and inappropriate costumes or casual wear to make sure employees follow the rules. (Some examples of Halloween costumes that have raised red flags: a giant inflatable "poop" emoji; a famous comedian hauling away an unconscious woman; celebrities who overdosed or committed suicide; the president with a garish comb-over wig; and various sexy outfits.) If employees violate the policy, send them home to change or ask them to cover the offending attire. Coach and counsel or discipline as needed.
  • "Is this mandatory?" The organization should make clear that participation in any Halloween festivities is voluntary and that no one will be forced to do anything. "Equal support should be given to those who don't participate and those who do," said Shari Lau, a SHRM HR knowledge manager. "Some employees may be offended or even afraid to celebrate something they associate with evil, and supervisors need to be sensitive to that." Supervisor and manager training can help with this.

Set the example, and hold folks accountable. The tone is always set at the top.

Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP, owner of Burr Consulting, LLC, Elmira, N.Y., co-owner of Labor Love, is an HR consultant, an assistant professor at Elmira College, and an on-call mediator and fact-finder for the New York State Public Employment Relations Board. He holds master's degrees in business administration and in human resources & industrial relations, and a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt.

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