HR Magazine - October 2000: Halloween Parties: A Tricky Treat

By Joni Lucas October 1, 2000

HR Magazine, October 2000

Vol. 45, No. 10

How can you give employees a ghoulish good time without upsetting those who find the holiday offensive -- or just plain frivoulous?

When Justin Hocker came up with the idea of a Halloween parade at Pekin Insurance two years ago, he had no inkling of the future success of the trek for treats through Pekin’s halls.

Hocker, human resource manager for the 750-employee firm in Pekin, Ill., intended to let employees’ children show off their costumes in a safe, controlled setting that minimized disruption to the office. Children could come to the office at the end of the day for quick and supervised trick-or-treating through the departments.

He thought the turnout would be small—about 50 to 75 kids. He bought Halloween goody bags with the company’s name and logo on them and put a small toy in each bag. Each department bought candy to hand out, and children and their parents were invited to the cafeteria for punch and cookies after the parade.

Much to Hocker’s surprise, 200 trick-or-treaters showed up that first year. He had to scramble to get more candy bags and usher the children through the parade route before the end of the company’s first shift.

Hocker clearly hit on a successful celebration that employees embraced. He also met a sometimes sensitive challenge facing many HR managers at this time of year—coming up with safe, clever and inoffensive ways to observe a classic children’s holiday in an adult setting.

Halloween celebrations can range from those focused on employees’ children, like the trick-or-treat parade, or those with a more grown-up flavor, such as employee costume parties. The trick to successful Halloween celebrations at work is in providing fun but avoiding alienating employees who find the holiday offensive or simply frivolous.

No Hiding from Halloween

Employers may find Halloween hard to ignore. The holiday is big business. People in the United States spend more than $5 billion on Halloween-related purchases in an average year, according to data from Disguise, a costume and Halloween supply vendor in San Diego. The average person spent $36 on Halloween supplies last year. Adults with young children are likely to spend the most on the holiday—about $50 on average. Disguise says Halloween is the second-largest holiday after Christmas in terms of dollars spent.

Halloween’s popularity in the workplace is growing, too. According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2000 Benefits Survey, more than one-third of employers reported they offer Halloween celebrations.

Some types of employers seem to pay more attention to the holiday than others, the survey shows. Among business and professional services employers, 52 percent report holding Halloween celebrations. In high technology, 50 percent of employers celebrate Halloween; in retail, 43 percent; and in health services, 40 percent. 

On the low end, only 25 percent of employers in finance, insurance and real estate and 32 percent in manufacturing report holding Halloween celebrations.

Why Celebrate at Work?

How does the employer benefit from something as apparently lighthearted as a Halloween party? In demanding workplaces filled with high workloads and expectations, Halloween events are a way to defuse tension and introduce fun into the workday. Employers and consultants say Halloween celebrations can help reduce stress, build teams and shape a positive company culture.

“Sometimes it’s the little things that make a difference with employees,” says Jan Stolzenberg, human resources manager for HARCO Laboratories in Branford, Conn. Because HARCO’s 127 employees manufacture equipment for aerospace and industry, celebrations are tailored to ensure safety and not interfere with production. “A little break in the routine, such as decorating the cafeteria for a holiday, is a nice change,” Stolzenberg says. “It shows employees that the company cares by putting a little extra effort into doing something different and nice for their benefit.”

For Gail Howerton, who heads Fun*cilitators, an organizational development firm in Fredricksburg, Va., the most important part of Halloween celebrations is not the specific events associated with the holiday but the atmosphere of playfulness it inspires in workplaces. The rapport among workers as they don costumes, compete in contests or play games breaks down barriers and injects more humanity into the workplace, she says. “People remember these experiences; it’s a continuation of a feeling you want in the workplace all year long.”

Halloween celebrations can build team skills, develop esprit de corps and promote creativity, says Leslie Yerkes, president of Catalyst Consulting Group Inc., an organizational development firm in Cleveland, and co-author of 301 Ways to Have Fun at Work (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1997).

“We’re spending more time at work,” Yerkes says. “We should be [getting] more joy at work. Halloween is just a convenient way to do it. It’s easy to do; the rituals are known. Why not?”

Some HR professionals in the field can see these intangible elements at work. “Lots of things are important to people at work,” says Sue Sullivan, HR director at, a home decorating products retailer. 

At her workplace, Sullivan says, Halloween is a much-anticipated event that is celebrated for several days and includes a pumpkin-painting contest, decorations, costumes and candy. “Having fun and a sense of camaraderie breaks some of the tension,” she says. “It’s a kind of release.”

Susan Anderson, HR manager at Healtheon/WebMD in Twinsburg, Ohio, noticed a difference in the way different types of workplaces celebrated Halloween. Her former employer, JoAnn Stores Inc., a craft dealer, celebrated the holiday at its Hudson, Ohio, corporate offices in a big, boisterous way with costumes, decorations and lots of candy.

When she moved to the high-tech arena, the Halloween celebration took a definite turn toward the sedate with a pizza lunch, costume contest and murder mystery play. Both types of celebrations are well received by workers, Anderson says.

Employee Objections

While costume contests or pumpkin carving seem innocuous, HR managers need to ensure that the celebrations respect the diverse opinions of employees about the holiday and that no one feels pressured to participate.

Halloween events should always be voluntary, Howerton says. If an employee doesn’t want to dress up in a costume, ask that person to judge the costume contest or buy prizes for the contest. Employees who don’t want to carve a messy pumpkin may want to participate in a pumpkin bowling contest or other activities.

“You need to be sensitive before you do anything,” says Barbara Glanz, a Western Springs, Ill.-based speaker and author who specializes in building morale, retention and customer loyalty. “It’s real important that everyone be comfortable with the kinds of activities offered during Halloween celebrations.”

Carol Fitzgerald learned the need for employee comfort with Halloween festivities the hard way.

A few years ago Fitzgerald, HR manager for the Washington, D.C., law firm of Spriggs and Hollingsworth, put together a Halloween happy hour in the firm’s conference room, complete with cobwebs, spiders, black and orange decorations and glowing candles down the center of the conference table. Pleased with how the setting turned out, she was shocked when two employees told her they wouldn’t go into the conference room. The distraught employees said they considered celebrating Halloween to be “devil worship.”

Shaken by the incident, Fitzgerald has halted any kind of workplace Halloween celebration. “I don’t want to risk it,” she says, citing the need for human resources professionals to maintain a heightened sensitivity to employees’ feelings. If she had to do it over again, Fitzgerald says, she would notify employees before the happy hour to avoid unpleasant surprises.

Like the two employees at Fitzgerald’s law firm, some people have religious objections to Halloween because of the holiday’s origins. Halloween has roots in an ancient Celtic festival marking the time when, the Celts believed, the spirits of those who died in the preceding year would come back, seeking living bodies to possess. The Celts dressed as ghouls and tried to frighten away the spirits. As the Romans took over Celtic territories, a Roman harvest festival, celebrated around the same time, became mingled with the Celtic religious celebrations.

When Christianity later spread over the same areas, and its All Saints Day or All Hallow’s holiday was fixed on Nov. 1, the ancient festival became the eve of the Christian celebration. The name Halloween derives from the term “All Hallow’s Eve.”

Depending on their beliefs, some employees may object to Halloween events because they believe that the holiday celebrates death and the occult. They should be given the opportunity to opt out of any workplace celebrations.

Other employees may object to Halloween parties simply because they see such events as frivolous and inappropriate for the workplace. One way to avoid complaints about frivolity is to tie the fun to something important in the company’s culture, Glanz says. That connection with a company’s values or customer service ideals can give celebrations a “deeper purpose than just having fun,” she says. demonstrates how a workplace can combine the fun with a serious purpose. The company holds Halloween-themed competitions among departments to raise money for cystic fibrosis research. The competitions reinforce teamwork and help employees feel that they are giving something to others, Sullivan says.

Legal Considerations

Employers also need to be aware that Halloween celebrations may raise legal considerations, such as potential discrimination, harassment and safety issues, according to employment attorneys.

For example, allowing decorations that some employees find offensive could be construed as contributing to a hostile work environment, notes attorney Garry Mathiason of Littler Mendelson in San Francisco.

Other possible legal issues include:

  • Workplace violence concerns. Suppose an employee comes to work wearing a mask, carrying a toy gun or other toy weapon and makes a joke in poor taste about hurting people? In an era when workplace violence can be very real and deadly, some workers may not appreciate the joke. Such an incident could leave the employer open to legal action. HR should make clear that certain types of costumes or props such as fake weapons are not appropriate.
  • “Cyber harassment” in the guise of holiday pranks. Workers who send obscene or threatening e-mails as Halloween jokes might expose employers to legal problems. Existing policies on e-mail use should already cover this situation.
  • Policies on time away from the workplace. Hocker urges HR professionals to review their existing rules governing short absences from work. If you plan to let employees bring children to participate in celebrations, employees will want to know whether they must take vacation time to pick up and bring their children or whether the time will be covered in other ways.
  • Religious accommodation. Some employees, such as followers of the Celtic-based religion Wicca, might consider Halloween itself a religious holiday. Employers could get into trouble if those employees request the day off as a religious holiday and the employers do not accommodate them, Mathiason says. Employers should be prepared for this type of request.

Celebration Guidelines

Legal questions, employee objections, religious issues—do all these mean you should hide the candy, ban the costumes and toss out the fake cobwebs? No. With planning and sensitivity, you can still throw Halloween parties.

Mathiason advises employers not to issue distinct guidelines just on Halloween celebrations unless there is a specific problem to address. He advises reviewing existing, general policies to see if they cover the planned celebration. Then, employers can determine whether they need more protection.

“The thing about Halloween parties–or any [office] parties—is that they take place in a work environment that moves to a more social environment,” he says. “Unfortunately, the laws don’t change. If you can anticipate and operate in moderation, [everyone] can still have fun.”

Halloween is “not a time for the HR manager to take the day off,” Mathiason adds. “They should be on heightened alert. The better handled, the more enjoyment of the holiday there will be without problems.”

Michael Karpeles of Goldberg, Kohn, Bell, Black, Rosenbloom & Moritz in Chicago, stresses the importance of letting employees participate in planning Halloween celebrations.

Karpeles suggests asking employees for ideas a couple of months ahead of any event. “You’ll learn a lot—whether employees think it’s a waste of money or if employees are opposed to Halloween parties,” he says. Employers can accommodate worker concerns and desires and make a “more informed decision” about the celebration, Karpeles says.

Get the word out about rules for proper behavior, but be casual in your approach, say consultants and HR practitioners. Send an e-mail or flyer to employees with a small bag of candy several weeks before the event and solicit ideas for the celebration. If you have a workplace activity committee, ask for its input. Once the details have been worked out, gently remind people, again through e-mails and flyers, about the boundaries for the voluntary celebration.

One important boundary covers costumes. While a costume’s inappropriateness is often a matter of personal opinion, problematic costumes can run the gamut from revealing outfits to gory masks and faux blood dripping from body parts. Most observers say it’s important to deal with offenders individually and not penalize all workers for one individual’s poor judgment.

For example, when an employee came to work dressed in a flapper costume one Halloween,’s Sullivan just had her put on a sweater. “It was a beautiful costume,” she says, “but it was skimpy.”

Glanz favors a light touch when dealing with inappropriate costumes. She recommends that HR professionals “bring in silly outfits, such as overalls, long underwear or a Nehru suit, and put them in a box and have the [inappropriately dressed employee] pick something out and change into it during the day. Don’t make it judgmental. Make it fun.”

Joni Lucas is a Potomac, Md.-based freelance writer who has covered occupational health, education and other issues for 15 years.



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