Pandemic-Era Halloween Parties? Workforce Pitfalls to Avoid

Costumes and behaviors can offend, whether worn in person or visible online

By Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP October 21, 2021
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Pandemic-Era Halloween Parties? Workforce Pitfalls to Avoid

​The past two years have had a dramatic effect on some workplace traditions, such as seasonal parties. The COVID-19 crisis led many organizations to cancel or rethink their plans to better abide by an array of public health protocols. Mask wearing, proof of vaccination, sanitized spaces and other measures have been put in place to preserve health and safety and prevent the spread of the virus.

If your organization decides to have a Halloween party this year, will it be held in the workplace? In a larger space to accommodate social distancing? Will you avoid health issues by having the party on Zoom or another online meeting platform? It might be just as much fun to see everyone on screen wearing costumes in the safety and comfort of their homes, where they may be working, anyway. Will there be an in-person party for vaccinated people who choose to attend, and a livestreamed version for unvaccinated or immunocompromised co-workers to experience it from afar? Who will run the party and who will handle the logistics of its virtual versions?

Office parties are great opportunities for employee engagement, communication, team building and fun. But things can go awry wherever they're held. Not all employees may want to participate, whether that involves wearing a costume or attending a party. In addition, some employees may have religious objections to any kind of recognition of Halloween. Be aware of inappropriate or offensive decorations, costumes and behaviors, in person or online.

It's important to maintain professionalism at any work venue, even during Halloween. Office rules and policies still need to be enforced. Here are some tips to communicate the organization's expectations and help people meet them.

  • Indecorous decorations. Companies are generally advised to avoid decorations that are "gruesome or graphic or otherwise distracting." Communicate that to employees. The president of an HR services provider company says a small pumpkin on an employee's desk can be acceptable, but "witches, demons and goblins can be unprofessional and potentially offensive to co-workers and customers." And no candles inside that pumpkin! Avoid any risk of fire or smoke that will set off alarms and sprinklers, or that will cause injury. 
  • "What dress code?" Working from home during the pandemic has given new meaning to the understanding of "casual days." Greater departures from the dress code should be expected now, as they usually are for costumed events such as Halloween. But the main policy still needs to be enforced, such as remembering to cover up from shoulders to knees when working. If employees violate the dress code in person, send them home to change. If the offensive attire is visible online, ask them to change (off-screen, please!) or cover up. Coach and counsel or discipline employees as needed.

Organizations should give examples of appropriate and inappropriate costumes or casual wear, so that employees understand how to follow the rules. Halloween costumes that have raised real-life red flags include a giant inflatable "poop" emoji; celebrities who died of drug overdoses or suicides; sexed-up uniforms; and polarizing political figures.

  • "Is this mandatory?" The organization should make it clear that participation in any party is voluntary and that no one will be forced to celebrate anything. "Equal support should be given to those who don't participate and those who do," according to a SHRM HR Knowledge Advisor. "Some employees may be offended or even afraid to celebrate something they associate with evil, and supervisors need to be sensitive to that." Religious accommodation may also come into play. Train supervisors and managers to respond to objections and provide sufficient information to help prevent policy violations. Expect the unexpected.

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 in Elmira, N.Y., and 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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