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How to Avoid Halloween Horrors at Work

Advice on all things HR from Shari Lau, SHRM-SCP, SHRM's knowledge manager.

A skeleton sitting in a chair with a laptop and a cup of coffee.

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.


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