Halloween Costume Horrors: ‘Anne Frank’ and Terrorist Outfits Don’t Belong at Work

By Dana Wilkie Oct 31, 2017
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​A Holocaust victim. An anorexic woman. A flasher. A "tranny granny."

Those are among the Halloween costumes now being sold at retail stores and online.

They may be OK for some parties. But when it comes to workplace Halloween festivities, don't even think about going there.

What's meant to be a lighthearted celebration of Halloween can—if not properly handled—devolve into an event that offends colleagues.

"Employees need to understand that what was deemed acceptable at their frat house or sorority is not acceptable in the workplace," said Sharon Marnien, vice president of human resources at Hamilton, N.J.-based Sparta Systems, which sells quality management software. "Obviously anything that pokes fun at another group is not acceptable."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

Inappropriate Costumes

Several retailers recently came under fire for selling an "Anne Frank" costume.

A "tranny granny" costume was pulled from Wal-Mart after consumers complained that it mocked transgender women.

An "Anna Rexia" costume—a short black dress with a skeleton drawn on the front—pokes fun at eating disorders.

"Remind everyone to stay away from political, religious, overly revealing or gruesome costumes because those can easily offend people," said Rob Wilson, president of Westmont, Ill.-based Employco USA, which offers human resource services to companies. "HR can have an extra box of appropriate and inexpensive costumes for people to change into if they come to work dressed inappropriately."

Revealing or sexually provocative costumes may provoke inappropriate comments or conduct that could subject an employer to liability, said Steve Miller, a labor and employment attorney at Chicago-based Fisher Phillips. 

"Employees should be advised prior to any office party of the types of costumes that are not permitted," he said. "Should an employee report to work in such a costume, the employee should be directed to change clothes or sent home to do so."

Among costumes that should be avoided, according to a recent Good Housekeeping article, are:

  • Anything involving blackface.
  • A refugee.
  • Ensembles that rely on cultural stereotypes. When someone dresses up in a manner that mocks another culture—particularly in an exaggerated way, say as a Mexican with thick mustache and a poncho—it can appear that he or she is mocking the culture.
  • A terrorist.
  • Zombie versions of recently deceased celebrities.
  • Outfits that depict animal cruelty. Avoid costumes like this lion-slaughtering dentist
  • A mentally ill person.
  • Anything related to sexual harassment. For sale online is the "adult flasher costume," which could easily be viewed as trivializing sexual harassment.
  • A national tragedy. It's a bad idea to dress up as the Twin Towers following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.
  • A homeless person.

Ann Melinger, CEO of employee engagement consultancy Brilliant Ink, said it's impossible to list every offensive costume to be avoided.

"You'll have to give your people some level of trust that they'll use good judgment," she said, adding that she finds this infographic useful in guiding employees. "On the other hand, companies may want to avoid costumes altogether and instead focus on other aspects of Halloween. Decorate conference rooms and host employees' children for crafts and trick-or-treating. If you have a relatively young, mostly childless employee population, consider hosting a low-key happy hour after working hours. Serve pumpkin ale and candy corn." 

Marnien agrees.

"Rather than telling people explicitly what they can and cannot wear, providing a list of questions to employees to ensure their outfit won't offend others may be helpful," she said. "For example, some of the questions could be: 'Will this outfit embarrass me in front of my co-workers, or will it embarrass or offend one of my colleagues?' 'Will I cause a political debate that isn't office-appropriate?' 'Is [my] costume designed to shock?' If the answer to any of these questions is yes, maybe it's time to consider a new costume."

Religious Objections

Costumes aren't the only part of the day that can offend. Some people have religious objections to the celebration of Halloween, believing that it glorifies demons and the occult. For instance, an employee may complain that the display of an upside-down or desecrated crucifix offends his or her religious beliefs, Miller said.

Said Wilson: "Since images of skeletons, witches, demons and evil spirits may offend some workers with conservative religious beliefs, ask employees to decorate using the lighter, more fun side of the holiday, including pumpkins and scarecrows."

Workers should also refrain from decorations that are too gory.

"I was recently in a Dunkin' Donuts that had decorative bloody handprints everywhere," Melinger said. "I was disgusted and quickly lost my appetite. Stick to the harmless decor like cobwebs, jack-o-lanterns and skeletons, and steer clear of anything that portrays death in a realistic or potentially upsetting way." 

In addition to decorations and costumes, employers should be careful with games that could go too far, Wilson said. 

"Employees playing an Ouija board game—that can get into some murky waters very quickly," he said. 

At Sparta Systems, the employees are the ones who decide whether to celebrate a holiday like Halloween.

"The strategy we have built is to make everybody feel part of our celebrations by having them be 'ground up' initiatives," Marnien said. "If people want to celebrate an event, it is up to them to bring it forward for consideration. [Staffers] understand that these events have been suggested by their peers, and they are therefore more receptive and understanding if they don't necessarily align with their values or beliefs. Participation is also voluntary, so people can choose whether to join the celebration. The key to our success has been in not mandating events from the executive level." 

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