How To Avoid Halloween Horrors At Work

Advice on all things HR from Shari Lau, SHRM-SCP, SHRM's knowledge manager. E-mail your questions to AskShari@shrm.org.

By Shari Lau Oct 1, 2015
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Our employees want some Halloween fun. But how can we avoid a scary outcome?

Oh, Halloween in the workplace! It’s a difficult idea to entertain at a time when any costume can be made to be sexy (just try to think of one that can’t), or to mock political or religious beliefs, or to play into inappropriate racial or disability stereotypes that will boggle your anti-discrimination-trained mind.

Yet many employers allow Halloween decorations, costumes and parties, and employees can truly benefit from having a little fun at work.

Of course, you can encourage employees to wear appropriate costumes and make sure managers are aware of possible religious objections to the holiday. Keep in mind that one person’s idea of what’s appropriate won’t always match another’s, and some managers may make it difficult for employees to ask for the day off.

So, how do you let employees enjoy themselves but still ensure that no one comes running to your office in tears or fury? To be honest, you can’t—but there are things you can do to reduce your risks.

Train your managers. This can be done in a short, informal meeting. Discuss how the roots of Halloween are related to both pagan and Christian beliefs, and therefore the holiday is ripe for claims of religious discrimination. Some employees may be offended or even afraid to celebrate something they associate with evil, and supervisors need to be sensitive to that. If offering a day off isn’t an option, managers should at least consider allowing telecommuting on that day if possible. Any parties, department decorations or costume contests should be clearly presented as voluntary, and equal support should be given to those who don’t participate and those who do.

Enforce the current dress code. While costumes may force you to depart from strict adherence to your dress code, the main tenets should still be enforced. A great rule to include in any dress code is that employees should be covered “from shoulders to knees.” That should ward off many costume miscalculations. Stress to employees that even on Halloween, the basics still apply, such as respectful attire that does not malign or make fun of any protected group. Give examples of costumes that meet the dress code and those that don’t.

Have a backup plan. Some employees will still get it wrong and show up as a terrorist or a pregnant nun. To lessen the potential problems, consider requiring those who wear a costume to bring a change of clothing. You also might want to maintain a collection of thrift store button-down sweaters and zippered sweatshirts to give to any (hopefully rare) offenders.

How do we probe negative survey results when employees are afraid to provide more information?

Whether they come from a single department or across the organization, negative employee survey results without helpful feedback can be concerning and frustrating. In many cases, the employees may be afraid to speak up. Perhaps they fear retaliation either in the form of a negative performance appraisal or worse, or they just don’t want to make waves. So how do you get them to talk?

You can start by ensuring confidentiality. You have the option of conducting another anonymous survey to pinpoint the reasons behind the ill feelings within specific groups, or you can bring in a third-party facilitator to conduct group interviews. For tackling issues common to several departments, you could arrange organizationwide You can start by ensuring confidentiality. You have the option of conducting another anonymous survey to pinpoint the reasons behind the ill feelings within specific groups, or you can bring in a third-party facilitator to conduct group interviews. For tackling issues common to several departments, you could arrange organizationwide You can start by ensuring confidentiality. You have the option of conducting another anonymous survey to pinpoint the reasons behind the ill feelings within specific groups, or you can bring in a third-party facilitator to conduct group interviews. For tackling issues common to several departments, you could arrange organizationwide focus groups. However, keep in mind that they will only work if you make employees feel comfortable. To do that, consider the following:

  • Choose a time and place that will put employees at ease. Make sure they have ample work time to fill out a second survey or attend a meeting. Provide a private area for both. They may be more relaxed if meetings can be held offsite at a neutral location.
  • Use a third party to conduct one-on-one interviews when possible. Some employees may not want to bring up issues in front of their co-workers, especially if someone in the group is causing the problem. In-house HR professionals can engage in these conversations as well if employees trust them.
  • Address employees’ fear of speaking up candidly. Urge managers to share their personal experiences when possible. Hearing how employee feedback has prompted improvements in the past can help reassure employees and show them how providing feedback will benefit them.
  • Hold managers accountable for making workers feel comfortable enough to speak openly about problems—and for addressing issues once they are raised. Even if there is no retaliation, employees will be less likely to share their concerns in the future if they’ve been ignored in the past. Include improved survey scores in managers’ performance reviews or tie them to managers’ bonuses.

What metrics should we use to measure whether our succession planning is working?

I’ve talked to many HR professionals over the years who want to know the best metrics to use to measure any number of strategies and plans. I give them all the same answer: Use ones that are meaningful to your organization right now. Still, they want to know what is the standard, the tried-and-true, the current thinking among the masses, and how their companies measure up. Certainly, being aware of common metrics is recommended and helpful, but it’s not as important as you think.

When deciding what you should be tracking for your organization, the key is to understand your succession plan and to recognize that it is a living document. For the metrics to be meaningful, you should measure different things as your organization’s goals change and your When deciding what you should be tracking for your organization, the key is to understand your succession plan and to recognize that it is a living document. For the metrics to be meaningful, you should measure different things as your organization’s goals change and your When deciding what you should be tracking for your organization, the key is to understand your succession plan and to recognize that it is a living document. For the metrics to be meaningful, you should measure different things as your organization’s goals change and your succession plan matures.

What are the desired outcomes? Select the metrics that best show progress toward those goals. A newer plan might seek to address basic staffing issues. You would track the retention and attrition rates of succession candidates, the percentage of positions filled internally vs. externally, the time-to-fill rates of key positions and the number of roles with successors in place.

As time passes, your plan’s focus may turn to developing bench strength. You might assess the number of successors who are ready to advance now compared to the number who need more development. How many more years will it take until they are ready? If more successors are being hired from outside the organization than from current staff, perhaps it’s time to focus on training to increase your internal bench strength.

For more-mature plans, it may be helpful to measure internal succession rates against employee satisfaction and engagement levels. You could look at diversity in leadership over time. To help project future succession needs, study the length of time individuals spend in leadership roles.

Remember, the true measure of success for any succession plan is how well the plan aligns with your organization’s current goals.

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